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At-A-Glance

Composed: 2014

Length: c. 8 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, timpani, percussion (kick drum, snare drum, tom-tom), strings, and solo string quartet

About this Piece

Banner is a tribute to the 200th anniversary of “The Star Spangled Banner,” [the lyrics of which were written by Francis Scott Key in 1814]. Banner is a rhapsody on the theme of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Drawing on musical and historical sources from various world anthems and patriotic songs, I’ve made an attempt to answer the question: “What does an anthem for the 21st century sound like in today’s multi-cultural environment?”

In 2009, I was commissioned by the Providence String Quartet and Community MusicWorks to write Anthem, a tribute to the historical election of Barack Obama. In that piece, I wove together the theme from “The Star Spangled Banner” with the commonly named Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson (which coincidentally share the exact same phrase structure).

Banner picks up where Anthem left off by using a similar backbone source in its middle section, but expands further both in the amount of references and also in the role played by the string quartet as the individual voice working both with and against the larger community of the orchestra behind them. The structure is loosely based on traditional marching band form, where there are several strains or contrasting sections, preceded by an introduction, and I have drawn on the drum line chorus as a source for the rhythmic underpinning in the finale. Within the same tradition, I have attempted to evoke the breathing of a large brass choir as it approaches the climax of the “trio” section. A variety of other cultural anthems and American folk songs and popular idioms interact to form various textures in the finale section, contributing to a multi-layered fanfare.

“The Star Spangled Banner” is an ideal subject for exploration in contradictions. For most Americans, the song represents a paradigm of liberty and solidarity against fierce odds, and for others it implies a contradiction between the ideals of freedom and the realities of injustice and oppression. As a culture, it is my opinion that we Americans are perpetually in search of ways to express and celebrate our ideals of freedom — a way to proclaim, “we’ve made it!” as if the very action of saying it aloud makes it so. And for many of our nation’s people, that was the case: through work songs and spirituals, enslaved Africans promised themselves a way out and built up the nerve to endure the most abominable treatment for the promise of a free life. Immigrants from Europe, Central America, and the Pacific have sought out a safe haven here and though met with the trials of building a multi-cultured democracy, continue to find rooting in our nation and make significant contributions to our cultural landscape. 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.

— Jessie Montgomery