Talma, Louise (31 Oct. 1906-13 Aug. 1996), composer and educator, was born to Alma Cecile Garrigues, an American professional soprano of French and Danish extraction who took the name Cecile Talma around 1900, and a father whose identity remains unknown. Because of discrepancies in the historical record, Talma's exact birth date and birthplace are uncertain; however, she used 31 October 1906 as her birth date all of her life and believed herself to have been born in Arcachon, France. Mother and daughter returned to the United States in 1914, settling in New York City. Talma grew up surrounded by music, but she was also an excellent science student and considered becoming a chemist before deciding on a career as a musician. After graduating from Wadleigh High School for Girls, Talma entered the Institute of Musical Arts (now the Juilliard School) in New York in 1922, where she studied both piano and composition. She later earned a bachelor of music degree from New York University in 1931 and a master of arts degree from Columbia University in 1933, having written her master's thesis on "Horns and Trumpets as Used in the Orchestra from 1700 to 1900."
In 1926, after making a successful debut as a concert pianist in New York, Talma spent her first summer at the Conservatoire Américan in Fontainebleau, France, where she met the pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who taught many of the best-known American composers of the early twentieth century. Under Boulanger's guidance, Talma gave up her piano studies in order to focus on composition. She also converted from agnosticism to Roman Catholicism in 1934, with Boulanger as her godmother, and adopted a lifestyle similar to Boulanger's in its devotion to music. Talma's copious correspondence reveals several passionate affairs with women, including one in late life with Ethelston (Eth) Chapman, who had been a fellow student in Fontainebleau with Talma. She never married.
While many of her early works express desire for an unattainable beloved (likely Boulanger), Talma also composed more than twenty religious works after her conversion, setting a number of sacred texts and spiritual writings. She showed an interest in neoclassical approaches and techniques and her first pieces appear to be highly autobiographical, establishing compositional patterns that would continue throughout her career. Speaking of her creative life, Talma identified three periods: her early works, which were composed during her "neoclassical period" (1925-51); her "serial period" (1952-67); and her "non-serial atonal period" (1967-96). However, after adopting serial methods in 1952, the majority of her works even in this last period owe something to serial approaches, especially in terms of melody creation.
Talma's Piano Sonata no. 1 (1943), Toccata for Orchestra (1944), and Alleluia in the Form of Toccata for piano (1945) were highly praised by critics and helped establish Talma as an important American composer at the beginning of her career. Based in part on the success of these works, she was the second woman (after Ruth Crawford-Seeger in 1930) to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship in music composition and the first woman awarded back-to-back Guggenheims in 1946 and 1947. In the 1940s Talma also began spending each summer at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where most of her mature works were composed. Talma was a full-time member of the music faculty at Hunter College in New York from 1928 until 1979, during which time she helped author two harmony textbooks for her students.
In 1952 Talma heard the composer Irving Fine's serial but tonally centered string quartet and immediately began working with serial approaches and techniques in her works. Her 1952 setting of the poet E. E. Cummings's "Let's Touch the Sky" was her first completed serial work; her String Quartet (1954), Piano Sonata no. 2 (1955), and La Corona (1955), a setting of John Donne's Holy Sonnets, all use clearly audible serial elements. As she developed her own compositional voice using serial elements, Talma created rows that allowed for tonal centering as well as more traditional, stricter use of pitch class sets.
Talma began working on a grand opera with the writer Thornton Wilder in 1954 after the two met while working at the MacDowell Colony. They considered several scenarios before deciding to base the opera on Wilder's existing stage play about the Greek figure Alcestis. Composed while Talma was in residence at the American Academy in Rome and at the MacDowell Colony, The Alcestiad was completed in 1958. Although several American opera houses, including the Lyric Opera of Chicago, New York's Metropolitan Opera, and the San Francisco Opera, expressed interest in the work, all of them deemed it too difficult for American performers and audiences. Wilder had previously enjoyed considerable success in Germany, and The Alcestiad premiered at the opera house in Frankfurt am Main in 1962. It was the first time an opera by an American woman had been performed in Europe. Despite the fact that the opera was critically and publically well received, it remains relatively unknown, perhaps because of the enormous resources the work requires. Nonetheless, The Alcestiad secured Talma a place in the ranks of groundbreaking American and female composers; in 1963 she was the first female composer to win the Sibelius Medal for composition, and in 1974 she was the first female composer elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (now the American Academy of Arts and Letters).
Talma's extensive body of works includes vocal and choral pieces; works for solo piano, chamber ensembles, and orchestra, as well as a chamber opera; and settings of texts by W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Keats, Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare, Wallace Stevens, Sir Thomas Wyatt, and others. Talma dedicated several works to President John F. Kennedy after his assassination, including Dialogues for piano and orchestra (1964) and A Time to Remember (1967), an oratorio that sets Kennedy's own words. The Tolling Bell, Talma's setting of texts by Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Donne for baritone and orchestra, was completed in 1969 and nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Talma wrote her own libretto for her 1976 chamber opera Have You Heard? Do You Know?, a work about the Cold War and the desire for utopias, and she continued to compose prolifically into her eighties. She was working on an elegiac piece, The Lengthening Shadows, when she died while in residence at the Yaddo colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. In her will she left the MacDowell Colony more than $1 million and the rights to all of her works.
The reception of Louise Talma's works at their premieres was almost always positive, and she was lauded after her death with favorable press examining her career and citing her groundbreaking accomplishments as a woman in the male-dominated world of composition. However, because Talma believed that composition could not be taught, she had no composition students to champion her works or her pedagogical methods in harmony and theory after her death. In the early twenty-first century Talma's works attracted renewed interest by performers, and they regained a foothold in vocal and piano repertoires. Those works, along with her career as a pathbreaking female composer, secure her place in the history of twentieth-century American music.
Extensive archival material is found in the Louise Talma Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., and the Louise Talma Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Also of interest is material in the Thornton Wilder Collection at the Beinecke Library. For introductions to Talma's life and work see Kendra Preston Leonard, Louise Talma: A Life in Composition (forthcoming); Leonard, "Towards a Works List for Louise Talma," Fontes Artis Musicae 59, no. 2 (Apr.-June 2012): 117-26; and Leonard, "Origin Stories: Louise Talma's Early Life," Journal of Historical Biography 12 (Autumn 2012): 1-29. Earlier secondary works include Luann Dragone, "Structural Consistency amidst Stylistic Diversity in the Music of Talma" (Ph.D. diss., City University of New York, 2003), and Susan Teicher, "The Solo Works for Piano of Louise Talma" (D.M.A. diss., Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, 1983). An obituary appeared in the New York Times, 15 Aug. 1996.
Kendra Preston Leonard
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Kendra Preston Leonard. "Talma, Louise";
American National Biography Online April 2014.