The "Diary of Sally Hemings" referred to in the title of this release is not a real phenomenon, but the imaginative creation of playwright Sandra Seaton, who wrote the libretto for this song cycle by Pulitzer Prize winner William Bolcom. Basing her work on the historical fact that Hemings was apparently the longtime companion of Thomas Jefferson, Seaton constructs Hemings as a complex individual whose experience lay between the state of slavery that she shared with other African-Americans and the world she inhabited with Jefferson, whom she accompanied to France as a teenager. She speaks French at times in this libretto, and Bolcom responds with a score that, more than most of his works, reflects his training with Darius Milhaud. The dramatic structure of the cycle is persuasive and unique: Seaton divides the text into four parts, each devoted to one of the phases of Hemings' life. Her words are economical and powerful, and Bolcom's score is devoted above all to a sensitive reflection of the text, beautifully rendered by soprano Alyson Cambridge (on the evidence of this, a major emerging talent). One might have wished that Bolcom had deployed his considerable ability to fuse classical and vernacular styles in the service of this project, for African-American music was also part of Hemings' world (and indeed Jefferson's). But the music here succeeds on its own terms. Special mention should be made of the production values, from sound to booklet notes to graphic design, achieved here by the small White Pine label based at Central Michigan University.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|From the Diary of Sally Hemings, song cycle|