Jessie Montgomery’s newest work, Hymn for Everyone, which will have its world premiere April 28-May 3, isn’t the piece she originally intended to write.
When she was named in April 2021 as Mead Composer-in-Residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Montgomery received three orchestral commissions from the CSO. The first was scheduled for performances this spring.
For her first commission, she thought about composing a suite for orchestra, a set of miniatures. A violinist trained at the Juilliard School, she was interested in developing new approaches to orchestrating the musical ideas she often first worked out on her violin. “Focusing on miniature pieces,” she said in an interview last fall, “I can experiment with a clear idea over a short period.”
Like just everyone else on the planet, Montgomery has been dealing with major upheavals, personal and professional, since the full force of the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. She turned 40 in December, and she had been re-evaluating her approach to composing. After growing up in a vibrantly artistic household in New York City’s Lower East Side, she is now a prolific, often-performed composer best known for colorful music that mixes all kinds of influences from traditional classical to the outer limits of improvised jazz and beyond. She began to question her belief that her pieces should always contain references to what she called the “unmistakably classical Western” tradition.
Then in May 2021, her mother, Robbie McCauley, a respected, boundary-pushing theater artist, died at age 78.
“Originally, I was working on an orchestral suite,” said Montgomery in a phone interview earlier this month. “Then I sort of switched mid-stream to reference back to this theme, this hymn, I had written during the pandemic, during the summer/fall of 2020. It was a vocal-like tune, and I had named it Hymn for Everyone. Then I thought maybe it might be something that would also have a lyrical aspect to it, which would be suited well to the really rich playing of the CSO. For my first piece out of the gate, I thought that would be a nice way to go.”
Hymn for Everyone, which the CSO will perform under Riccardo Muti, has no text. “It’s just a made-up tune,” she said with a laugh. “I called it a hymn because it sort of felt like a hymn. The first few notes that start the melody are referential to ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’ ” Often called the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” combines a poem written in 1900 by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson and music by his brother, composer John Rosamond Johnson.
Montgomery added that she's “just treating the melody as a chorale that gets distributed around the orchestra in different [sections] and different combinations of orchestral sections. The melody gets played by each of those sections.”
She is using standard orchestral forces, and the 12-minute piece isn’t as intricately woven as a fugue. “It’s a simple piece,” she said. “I meant it to be simple so I can explore the orchestration. There’s a big brass chorale in the middle, sort of anchoring everything. It starts really slowly with the viola section and then builds as the piece goes on.”
After her mother died, “it struck me that this was what I wanted to work on, this more melancholic piece,” she said. “I also found that my mom had written a poem called ‘Poem for Everyone.’ I didn’t know she had written it. When I made that discovery, I thought I had to lean into this a little bit more. I’d expand the hymn and make it into sort of a musical tribute. It was a bit of catharsis for me.”