Seaton's song cycle makes in-state debut

CMU English Professor Sandra Seaton’s song cycle will make its Michigan debut at the University of Michigan.

The song cycle, titled “From the Diary of Sally Hemings,” was written by Seaton about a year and a half ago and has been performed numerous times throughout the United States. It made its world premiere March 16, 2001 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

“A song cycle is similar to a play because it is the performance of words on stage. My words came first then music was composed to fit the words,” she said.

Seaton wrote the Libretto portion of the song cycle, which is the text set to the composer’s music. The entire song cycle features 18 songs revolving around one subject; Sally Hemings, former slave and common law wife to Thomas Jefferson.

One woman, Soprano Florence Quivar, sings the whole text. It is kind of like a mini opera, Seaton said.

Music Accord, a consortium of performing arts centers, commissioned Seaton and Composer William Bolcom to write the work.

Music Accord is made up of groups such as The University Musical Society, San Francisco Performances, The Kennedy Center, The Library of Congress and The Boston Symphony at Tangowood.

“I had to think about it at first, and then I said yes. It would be such great opportunity to work with such a famous composer,” Seaton said.

After Seaton decided to write the Libretto she had to conduct a lot of research.

“I’ve always studied African-American history and literature, since the 1960s. So it was an area of interest for me and fit in with a lot of other things I had studied,” she said.

Seaton read about colonial women, slave women, customs from the periods, cooking, food, costume design art and everyday life in order to encompass the entire life of Hemings. She also readysome of Jefferson’s letters and visited archives.

“I tried to read as many first-hand accounts as possible. The historical Sally Hemings left no writings as far as we know,” she said.

Seaton said she wrote her own version of Hemings’s life and that others may see it differently.

“The title came from my imagination, but it had to be historically plausible,” she said.

Hemings was Martha Jefferson’s half sister and was a slave in their household. After Martha died, Jefferson and Hemings developed a common law marriage and had seven children together, two of which died at a young age. They were together for 38 years, Seaton said.

“Everyone knew about Sally Hemings, but there was no way to prove it,” she said.

In 1998, Dr. Eugene Foster and other scientists conducted DNA testing of some of Jefferson’s and some of Hemings’s descendants and concluded there were links between the two of them.

“This was very important because it showed that the relationship did occur,” Seaton said.

Foster’s information was published in Nature Magazine in the Nov. 5, 1998 issue.

“Foster’s article, Annette Gordon-Reed’s ‘Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy,’ and Shannon’s Lanier’s ‘Jefferson’s Children: The Story of One American Family’ are all good sources to read if you want more information about her and their relationship,” Seaton said.

Seaton said she wanted to depict Hemings as a woman who was not only sexually involved with Jefferson, but as a person, an independent thinker, and a determined and strong woman.

“I wanted to write about her honestly. I wanted her to speak for herself. I met about 45 of her descendants at the Library of Congress, and they were pleased with what I had done. They thought I had respected her memory,” Seaton said.

“From the Diary of Sally Hemings” will take place at 8 p.m. Feb. 13 and 4 p.m. Feb. 17 at the University of Michigan’s Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.

The program also includes “Honey and Rue,” a six-song cycle drawn from women’s lives and the African American experience. “Honey and Rue,” was written by Toni Morrison and composed by Andre Previn. It will be sung by Harolyn Blackwell, one of America’s top sopranos.

At 7 p.m. Feb. 13 there will be a “meet the artist” question-and-answer forum before the performance.

At 7 p.m. Feb. 5 there also will be a study club for those interested in finding out more prior to the performance.

The session is part of the Literary Chamber Series and those interested in attending can e-mail

For tickets to “The Diary of Sally Hemings” and “Honey and Rue,” call UMS Ticket Office at (800) 221-1229 or go to