“Hemings”: Shards of History
William Bolcom’s New Song Cycle Gives A Wide Berth To Melodrama
by Philip Kennicott
The last note of William Bolcom’s new song cycle for mezzo-soprano, “From the Diary of Sally Hemings,” is played low on the piano’s keyboard, as quietly as possible, so that it adds just a shade of something discordant to the otherwise reflective ending. First heard Friday evening at the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium, Bolcom’s new songs are filled with such thorny touches. From a composer who can write effortlessly in almost every idiom — he has produced some lovely ragtime and an opera straight out of the vernacular of 1940 — the “Sally Hemings” project is a bracing bit of cool objectivity.
There is, of course, no diary by Sally Hemings, the slave who may have been Thomas Jefferson’s mistress and, according to DNA evidence, very likely bore him at least one child. Bolcom’s cycle, written for mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar, is set to a text by Sandra Seaton, who has used her imagination to flesh out central episodes of Hemings’s life. Hemings is presumed to be literate, to participate in the good life of Paris while visiting with Jefferson, and to be an attractive woman in whom Jefferson found an emotional surrogate after losing his wife.
The Hemings story, called by one Jefferson biographer “the longest-running miniseries in American history,” is dangerous material for a composer. It is trendy, and trendy topics are like a drug, impairing artistic judgment and offering only an insubstantial and fleeting high. Bolcom says he was initially reluctant to touch the subject: “It is such a ‘now’ sort of topic, I feared.”
But composer and poet have kept well clear of the shoals, avoiding cheap affirmation and common bathos…by