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Composed: 2017

Length: c. 16 minutes

About this Piece

This piece traces the evolution of the experience of Black people in America through the lens of the Black woman. Using one figurative character who represents strength, courage and selflessness, this “queen” will transform from her journey as a leader in Africa to a slave on an American plantation, to a disenfranchised citizen subject to Jim Crow laws, and finally to the strong matriarch found in many churches presently. Dramatic spoken word, written by Courtney D. Ware, poetically explains the thoughts and feelings of her character, while a musical portrait is revealed of her. 

Women have always played vital roles in African American communities. I have known women to have strong but warm, caring temperaments. She is elegant and prideful. She carries herself with distinction and class. Her guidance is given with both tender love and firmness. She is the backbone and cornerstone of her community. She gives wise instruction to those of all ages, especially the younger generations. She teaches the young girls how to be women and the boys how to treat a woman. Her character does not change with the ages but is passed on from generation to generation. With every struggle and change presented, she is there providing support and direction to her community. Courtney Ware writes: “It was imperative that the story of Queen be told from her perspective, in her voice, with her words. Although Queen represents black womanhood in America and in Africa, she is not one dimensional. Her story is a mixture of pain and struggle, hope and triumph.”  

As each section encapsulates a different time period, the musical themes reflect that by drawing on melodies, textures, and rhythms from that particular era. The “Prologue” develops out of the Ghanaian song “Mo mmra ma yengoro” (“Come and let us play”), transforming the orchestra into a West-African drum ensemble with its floating, polyrhythmic texture. “A Crown Forgotten” makes reference to the Negro-spiritual “Oh, Freedom” by using the syllabic stress of the word “freedom” as a musical basis for the section. Slow glissandi in the woodwinds mimic the cries of captured slaves against nauseating swells in the lower strings. 

The tumultuous and violent character of the third section—“Jim Crow”—is undergirded by the quotation from the Gospel song “Don’t You Let Nobody Turn You Around,” which served as a protest song during many Civil Rights marches. There are many references to Gospel music as the style acted as the musical soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement. Elements such as call and response, extended use of the blues scale, and syncopated rhythms, make up the aggressive, unsettling tone of the section. The piece finally concludes reflectively with the melody of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” a favorite hymn of my mother and grandmother, played lyrically by the string section over a recording of a prayer led by a “church mother” out of a Black Pentecostal church.  

Portrait of a Queen was commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra with the generous support of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Underwood. As my mother Lisa Simon and grandmother Bertha Simon have wholeheartedly displayed the portrait of a “Queen” by their unselfish and loving character, this piece is solely dedicated to them. 

— Carlos Simon