Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981)

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

Jessie Montgomery
Date of Composition: 2014
Duration: 8 minutes

Jessie Montgomery’s Banner was composed in 2014, fulfilling a commission from the philanthropic Joyce Foundation and the Sphinx Organization, a group known for supporting diversity in the arts. The piece commemorates the 200th anniversary of The Star Spangled Banner. Of course, while Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics to our national anthem in 1814, the music dates back some 75 years earlier. It was originally composed by John Stafford Smith to accompany “The Anacreontic Song,” the official anthem of a gentleman’s society that met weekly at London’s Crown and Anchor Tavern for concerts, drinking, and general frivolity. After Key penned his poem, the verses were published shortly thereafter and set to the tune we know so well today. The song was used occasionally for official state events in ensuing years, but it was not until 1931, after much contentious debate, that the Star-Spangled Banner beat out other beloved works for adoption by Congress as the official United States national anthem.

American violinist and composer Montgomery (b. 1981) was raised in the cultural melting pot that is Manhattan. She says she envisioned the commission from the perspective of “What does an anthem for the 21st century sound like in today’s multi-cultural environment?” Her conclusion: “In 2014, a tribute to the U.S. National Anthem means acknowledging the contradictions, leaps and bounds, and milestones that allow us to celebrate and maintain the tradition of our ideals.” Those contradictions have been a focus of public debate in recent years, as athletes and others have used performances of the anthem to bring attention to issues viewed differently, or not at all, by other segments of the population. Therefore, it seems only appropriate that the ensuing Banner is not your typical reworking of the Star Spangled Banner, but a diffused reflection of the many musical traditions of America’s peoples. In fact, if not listening closely, you might not recognize the composition’s primary source material at all. Phrases of the melody are heard primarily in very small fragments, interwoven with other patriotic and traditional songs from both the U.S. and abroad to create a meaningful musical experience. Since its inception, this newly imagined Banner has made a strong impression on musicians and audiences alike, quickly finding its way into the orchestral repertoire, with multiple performances across the country in recent years.

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, ©2021

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Ryunyan

Montgomery is a native New Yorker, a graduate of the Juilliard School in violin performance, and holds a master’s degree from New York University in music composition.  Her publications focus on various combinations of strings, and enjoy wide performance popularity with noted ensembles throughout the country.  She is a devoted supporter of educational activities and youth musical ensembles. Her musical style is, if anything eclectic, and is a reflection of the enormous variety of musical art in her native New York City.  Mahler once somewhat fatuously remarked something to the effect that a symphony should contain “everything.”  Well, Montgomery dips into a remarkable universe of musical traditions, and reinterprets them in her own voice—just not all in one piece, of course.

Montgomery was commissioned in 2009 by the Providence String Quartet and Community Music Works for a composition to celebrate the election of President Barack Obama. In that work, Anthem, she more or less wove together elements of “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”  The latter, of course, is often referred to as the Black National Anthem.  In 2014, the composer was commissioned by the Sphinx Organization for a work to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the “The Star Spangled Banner.”  According to Montgomery, Banner, takes the previous composition as a point of departure for a rhapsody that incorporates such disparate elements as the national anthem, the Black National Anthem, as well as the national anthems of Puerto Rico and Mexico, and other patriotic and folk songs.  Montgomery is a self-confessed fan of marching bands and drum corps. She imitates their sectional musical form as well as incorporating the entertaining and dazzling virtuosity of their “drum lines” into Banner as a forceful rhythmic element at the end.  An important symbolic element is the musical contrast and exchange between the solo string quartet and the rest of the orchestra—a Baroque touch, indeed.  Montgomery asserts that it represents societal change driven by individuals interacting with the consensus. The various motifs and melodic snippets come together in the finale in kaleidoscopic layers of teeming elements.

Banner employs a challenging and often enigmatic musical language and posits the warts in our nation’s history. It comes close to the “grievance art” that is predominant among today’s young progressive artists.  It certainly will not please all. While it may seem an odd, even disrespectful tribute to our beloved national anthem, all art is by its nature personal and subjective.  Withal, Montgomery creates a work that incorporates the remarkable diversity of our country, and within the context of an homage acknowledges “the contradictions, leaps and bounds and milestones that allow us to celebrate and maintain the tradition of our ideals.”

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan, ©2021

Performed by the Fort Collins Symphony on the concert Fury, Contemplation, and Hope at the Lincoln Center, October 2021.