When composer Carlos Simon joined the Georgetown faculty in 2019, the university was in the midst of a reckoning with one of the darkest episodes in its 200-year-plus history: The sale, in 1838, of 272 enslaved people — men, women, and children — by Maryland Jesuit priests to Louisiana slaveholders. The sale was organized by Georgetown’s then-president, Thomas Mulledy, in order to pay the university’s debts and secure its financial future.
“As a Black composer, my antennas are always up for things that resonate with me, things that I want to use music to express,” Simon said by phone from Washington, D.C., during a recent interview. Georgetown had formed a committee to address reconciliation issues with the descendant community, as well as the ongoing legacy of the university’s involvement with slavery. “I wanted to join in with the arts,” Simon said. “I was like, ‘I have to write a piece about this.’”
Around that time, he got a call from flutist Michael Avitabile, executive director of Hub New Music. The Boston-based ensemble had already premiered Simon’s violin/cello duo “Where Two or Three Are Gathered” in 2017, and Avitabile wanted him to write something new. “And I said, ‘Actually, I have an idea,’” Simon recalled.
The resulting work is “Requiem for the Enslaved,” a piece for small ensemble with a spoken-word text written by rapper Marco Pavé. A recording of the piece was released earlier this year. Now its first performance before an audience is at hand: Hub New Music, Pavé, trumpeter Jared “MK Zulu” Bailey, and Simon himself at the piano, will give the live premiere of “Requiem for the Enslaved” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Oct. 9.
“I’m just honored that he’s trusting us to tell this story,” said Avitabile in a phone interview. He began reading about the topic after Simon told him of his idea, and it hit him that “this is a very substantial story that we’re telling, and I’m really happy that we get to be part of it.”
To work out how his piece would approach a tragedy of this dimension, Simon began by doing research in The Georgetown Slavery Archive. He also traveled to plantation sites in both Maryland and Louisiana, “to put my feet in that soil.”
“I had a tremendous amount of information,” Simon said. “And my job was just: How do I translate this into music and what structure do I use?”
He and Pavé decided that the piece should address the sale of the enslaved people at Georgetown as well as contemporary issues of structural racism. Not unlike Britten’s “War Requiem,” which interweaves antiwar poems by Wilfred Owen with the traditional requiem sequence, Pavé’s text mixes references to the requiem service with his own words, alternately sorrowful, imploring, and searingly angry.
One of the requiem’s most poignant moments is its opening invocation. Over plaintive accompaniment from strings, winds, and trumpet, the names and ages of several of the enslaved people are intoned, beginning with “Isaac, 65 years old.” The idea, Simon said, came from viewing the original bill of sale in Georgetown’s archives. We learn that those who were sold included children as young as 1 year old.
Elsewhere the text turns accusingly to our own time. “What does it mean for your soul if your body was never free?” Pavé raps. And elsewhere: “This is not a world created by God/ This is a country created by mobs.”
The range of musical influences Simon brings to the piece is wide, stretching from Gregorian chant to jazz. Much of the material is knit together by the use of a four-note motif found at the beginning of both a medieval funeral chant and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Other Black spirituals are referenced as well, and Simon included improvised passages for both Avitabile and trumpeter Bailey.
The Gardner Museum concert will actually be the second complete performance of “Requiem for the Enslaved.” The first was a video-only performance in the Library of Congress series last November. Performing it for a live audience will have a different resonance, Avitabile said. “To be trusted with this story and be part of Carlos’s vision for telling it is such a beautiful experience. And it’s something that just constantly reminds me of why I’m in this job.”
Simon said he wants audiences to understand that “this is a part of our American history. The story is a part of our narrative.
“It’s sad, it’s a tragedy,” he continued. “But whether you’re Black or white, it is part of our culture, and how we got here [and] where we are going. And I really want people to understand that this is us. It is the story of us as Americans.”
HUB NEW MUSIC
Carlos Simon’s “Requiem for the Enslaved”
At Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Oct. 9, 1:30 p.m.
Tickets $20-$40. 617-278-5156, www.gardnermuseum.org/calendar/requiem-enslaved-20221009