Just before Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson died in 1782, she made her husband promise not to remarry. He never did.
However, historians believe that in the remaining 49 years of his life, Thomas Jefferson fathered six children with one of the women enslaved on his Virginia estate.
Although Sarah “Sally” Hemings never wrote about the former president and principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and there is no existing paper trail that could conclusively confirm such a liaison ever existed, composer William Bolcom and librettist Sandra Seaton used their imaginations to create a musical diary.
Consisting of 18 songs in four parts, “From the Diary of Sally Hemings” was commissioned for piano and voice by renowned mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar.
She also premiered it at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre in 2001 and at the Library of Congress later that year.
Key portions of “From the Diary of Sally Hemings” will be premiered locally at the Marigny Opera House on Wednesday by mezzo-soprano Givonna Joseph, founder of OperaCreole and a longtime member of the New Orleans Opera Chorus.
She will be accompanied by Wilfred Delphin on piano for the 90-minute concert.
The songs trace the life of Sally Hemings from her earliest memories to her sojourn in Paris with Jefferson, and finally her life at Monticello until Jefferson’s death in 1826.
Joseph said that she identifies with Hemings; both are of mixed-race parentage. Hemings’ father, John Wayles, a prominent Virginia planter, had children with one of the women enslaved on his plantation.
When Hemings was born from that situation in 1773, she became the half-sister of the woman who was Jefferson’s wife at the time.
“There may have been some physical resemblance between the two of them. That might have been part of the attraction,” Joseph said. “But I don’t know. None of us know,” she added. No paintings or drawings exist for either one of them.
“The relationship,” Joseph speculated, “must have been very challenging to him (Jefferson) in terms of his words about ‘all men are created equal’ and all of the other wonderful things he wrote to form this country, but yet this was not the situation in his personal life.
“As great a man as Thomas Jefferson was, many great men have difficulties in some areas of their lives,” Joseph added. “It must have been a struggle for him to reconcile his words with his deeds. I really don’t know what his struggle would have been, but it is interesting that he elevated her. She wasn’t just a person who happened to be in the house; happened to be someone that he took advantage of. I think it was much more than that.”
The song cycle created by Bolcom and Seaton, Joseph said, “shows that Sally was very strong. It shows that she probably had some introspection. I like the idea that they went in and created this fictional diary that she might have written at the time. It explores the complexity of the relationship in a way that we would know and understand it.”
Joseph said that she will be singing about half of the 18 songs in the cycle and will be doing it in such a way as to keep the production running smoothly. “I’ll make sure to take selections that keep the story going,” she said. “It won’t be anything that jumps around. It’s in four parts, so I’ll pick something from each part that continues to tell the story.”
For concert-goers who want to follow the Hemings-Jefferson story, there will be some type of a libretto in the printed program, Joseph said.
Joseph also said there will be several other songs in the program that are not in the cycle but are “salutes to women.”
Coming a day after her birthday, Joseph added, “This concert is a celebration for me, too.”