Five Freedom Songs was conceived in collaboration with Soprano Julia Bullock between 2017-2018. We wanted to create a song cycle that honors our shared African-American heritage and the tradition of the Negro spiritual, while also experimenting with non-traditional stylistic contexts.
Each of the five songs in this cycle are sourced from the historical anthology Slave Songs of the United States (originally published by A. Simpson & Co., New York, 1867), which categorizes each song based on origin and social context.
For example, “My Lord, What a Morning” is actually the original lyric to the more popular spiritual “Stars Begin to Fall”, which also originated in the Southeastern slave states. “I Want to Go Home” also originates from the Southeastern states, and my setting is inspired by the simple way it was transcribed as a simple seven-note melody without an indicated rhythm, which inspired me to write it in a hybrid Gregorian chant/spiritual style. “Lay dis Body Down”, a funeral song said to originate from the region surrounding South Carolina, is set in an improvised style, wherein each part of the ensemble chooses their own pacing of the line to create a swirling meditation. “My Father, How Long?” contains the refrain “We will soon be free, we will soon be free, De Lord will call us home”, the words of which reflect the dual meaning between spiritual salvation and freedom from oppression. It is a song that emerged from a jail in Georgetown, S.C. at the break of the Great Rebellion, and accompanied by percussive sounds in the strings evoking the chain gang. “The Day of Judgment” originates from the region surrounding Louisiana and is set as an uneasy celebration over the refrain of a traditional West African drumming pattern.
— Jessie Montgomery
For Lay dis Body Down, the entrances are indicated by their proximity to the entrances before them, but should be brought in “at will” (or by the will of the conductor). Once each player (or section) has entered, they should pace their line freely, but always in response to the textures surrounding them. The general pulse should be kept in mind the entire way through, but players should feel free to add light ornamentation to keep things moving if needed. When played by a large ensemble with multiple players on a part, the section should follow the pacing of their section leader, however, it is okay to diverge from the leader as long as you eventually return to meet them in the following gesture. A big ensemble cue should be given at m. 30 to indicate that everyone should play at the same vertical pace… the swirling turns into order as the ensemble descends into the final cadence.
Co-commissioned by: Sun Valley Music Festival, San Francisco Symphony, Boston Symphony Orchestra; Andris Nelsons, Music Director, Grand Teton Music Festival, Kansas City Symphony, New Haven Symphony Orchestra, Virginia Arts Festival
Premiere: August 7, 2021, Sun Valley Music Festival