American composer Louise Talma (1906–1996) wrote in a distinctive, often neo-Classical style. She wrote many vocal pieces, including song cycles and the first American opera by a woman to be staged at a major European opera house. In all, Talma composed more than 40 significant works in her lifetime. Additionally, she became the first American to teach at the prestigious Fontainebleau School, and was a faculty member at New York City's Hunter College for over a half-century.
The daughter of two American professional musicians, Talma was born on October 31, 1906, in Arcachon, France, a resort town near Bordeaux. Talma's father died while she was still a child; Talma's mother, a singer, moved with her daughter to New York City in the summer of 1914. There, Talma studied chemistry at Columbia University while pursuing piano and composition studies at the Institute of Musical Art, the institution that later became the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. Talma attended courses at the institute from 1922 until 1930, winning the Seligman Prize for composition there in 1927, 1928, and 1929. She earned her bachelor of music degree from New York University in 1931, and two years later a master of arts degree from Columbia.
During summers from 1926 to 1939, Talma traveled to Fontainebleau, France, to study at the American Conservatory. She first studied piano under Isidor Philipp, one of France's most renowned piano instructors. From 1928 to 1939 she studied composition under Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger was one of the twentieth century's most influential instructors of composition and also of conducting, and she trained Talma intensely. By this time, Talma was a teacher as well as a student. She was an instructor in music theory and ear training at the Manhattan School of Music from 1926 to 1928, leaving to become a faculty member at Hunter College, a large public institution now part of the City University of New York. Talma taught at Hunter College for over 50 years, finally leaving the institution in 1979. Additionally, she became the first American to teach at the Fontainebleau School, where she herself had studied under Philipp and Boulanger.
During the late 1920s Talma was recognized for her skills in piano playing and in composition by the Institute of Musical Art, the Fontainebleau School of Music, and the National Federation of Music Clubs.
By 1935 Boulanger had convinced Talma to focus exclusively on composition, and Talma's career truly took shape. In a later article, Talma told the New York Times : "It took some time before I knew I was a composer…. I thought all composers were dead. Composers were people you found in a book, who had written all this wonderful music that you heard at concerts. I knew from a very early age that I wanted to compose, but the idea that there were actually people out there now, in the flesh, actively writing music, did not occur to me for quite some time." While studying in New York City and Paris, Talma composed in a spare, neo-Classical style that became her signature; Grove Music noted that Talma's "whole output is marked by clar- ity of line, gesture and proportion." This style came from Talma's studies with Boulanger, particularly centering on the works of Stravinsky.
Talma's earliest compositions included Song of the Songless (1928); Three Madrigals (1928), a piece for voice and string quartet, foreshadowing the vocal settings that characterized much of Talma's later work; Two Dances (1934); and a sacred work titled In principio erat verbum (1939). This composition won the Stovall Prize at the Fontainebleau School in both 1938 and 1939.
Beginning in the early 1940s Talma visited the MacDowell Colony, an artists' retreat in Peterborough, New Hampshire. There she met and was greatly influenced by composers of the Boston school, including Lukas Foss, Irving Fine, Harold Shapero, Claudio Spies, Arthur Berger, and Alexie Haieff. Talma composed most of her pieces while staying at the MacDowell Colony. In 1943 Talma won the North American Prize for her Piano Sonata No. 1. She composed several other pieces in the mid-1940s, including Toccata for Orchestra , which later won the Juilliard Publication Award and became one of Talma's best-known compositions. These works show the range of Talma's style, incorporating distinctly American sounds such as jazz into her compositions.
In 1946 and 1947 Talma was awarded two Guggenheim fellowships, making her the first woman to receive that honor. These fellowships were created to allow outstanding individuals the ability to focus on their work without financial hardships; receiving these fellowships signified the respect others had for Talma's growing body of work. She composed the Venetian Folly: Overture and Barcarolle, The Devine Flame , and parts of Two Sonnets during these years.
In 1951 Talma was recognized by the French government with the Prix d'Excellence de Composition (Prize for Excellence in Composition). The following year she became a full professor at Hunter College. From the early 1950s on, Talma began experimenting with a form of tonality known as twelve-tone, which rejected the traditional major/minor settings of most music. Her first work to draw on the twelve-tone style was Six Etudes for Piano (1953–54). This was a fruitful period for Talma. She composed many works, progressively exhibiting a more mature, fuller style incorporating the twelve-tone style with her clear, often linear style.
Among the pieces she composed in the 1950s was an opera, The Alcestiad . Written partially with the proceeds from a Senior Fulbright Research Grant which the composer used to work in Rome, the opera featured a libretto written by respected playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder; the story of the opera was adapted from his play Life in the Sun . Talma had met Wider at the MacDowell Colony in 1952, and he later asked her to compose a score with his play in mind. The AllMusic.com website commented that "the opera contains widely contrasting moods attained mainly through harmonic coloration." This opera became the first by an American woman to be performed in a major European opera house; it was presented in Frankfurt in 1962 where it received a 20-minute standing ovation. Speaking in an interview in 1995, Talma recalled that "it took [Wilder] over a year to persuade me … because I was not at all the kind of person who went for opera or thought that I had anything that I could do with operatic libretto." In 1960 Talma received the Marjorie Peabody Waite Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters honoring The Alcestiad . However, it has not been performed in the United States.
Throughout the 1960s Talma further developed the style she had moved into during the preceding decade. With A Time to Remember (1966–67), a piece for choir and orchestra incorporating the speeches of recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy, she moved away from the repetitive serialism typically associated with twelve-tone tonality, creating a unique tonal voice. She continued to receive numerous awards for her composition skills, including three in 1963 alone: a National Federation of Music Clubs Award, a National Association for American Composers and Conductors Award, and the Sibelius Medal for Composition at the Harriet Cohen International Awards in London.
Talma's career included not only composition but pedagogy. She published two textbooks, drawing on her experiences both as a composer and as a teacher: in 1966, Harmony for the College Student , and in 1970, with James S. Harrison and Robert Levin, Functional Harmony . (The term "functional harmony" is typically used to describe the twelve-tone system Talma embraced in her mature compositions.)
In the early 1970s, Talma again returned to Fontainebleau during her summers to study. This era of study gave rise to a work entitled Summer Sounds for Clarinet and String Quartet , written between 1969 and 1973. Talma became the first female composer elected to the American Institute of Arts and Letters in 1974. The following year, she held the position of Clark lecturer at Scripps College in Claremont, California. Talma continued to teach at Hunter College until mandatory retirement in 1976, and then remained as a professor emerita until 1979. During the summer of 1978 Talma returned to the Fontainebleau School as an instructor. There, she taught solfege—a way of reading the musical scale—analysis, and harmony, becoming the first American woman to serve as an instructor at the school. She returned to teach during the summers of 1981 and 1982.
Talma composed several works in the 1970s, including several inspired by nature. In addition to Summer Sounds , a chamber piece, she wrote Rain Song and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird . Talma also was known for her pieces reflecting Biblical themes, such as the 1978 work Psalm 84 . She returned to the theme of nature in the chamber piece Ambient Air , written between 1980 and 1983. In the 1980s and 1990s Talma wrote many Biblical and devotional pieces, including A Wreath of Blessings (1985) and Ave Atque Vale (1989), a setting of the text of Psalm 115 (1992).
Throughout her life Talma was active in professional outreach. She served on the boards of trustees of the Edwin MacDowell Association, the League of Composers, the International Society for Contemporary Music, the American Music Center, and the Fontainebleau Fine Arts and Music Association. Talma was also a charter member of the American School of University Composers and a fellow of the American Guild of Organists.
Talma died on August 13, 1996, at the Yaddo artists' colony near Saratoga Springs, New York. At the time of her death, she was working on a song cycle. She is buried in Hawthorne, New York, at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery.
Talma never married and left no surviving relatives. However, her compositions have made her one of the United States' foremost composers of the twentieth century. She is particularly remembered for her contributions to the neoclassical style and her innovative work with the twelve-tone structure during the majority of her career; Talma is also noted for her piano pieces, her vocal settings of sacred and secular texts, and her influence as an educator and music professional.
New York Times , October 19, 1986; August 15, 1996.
"Louise Talma: a Biography," http://www.omnidisc.com (January 2, 2007).
"Louise Talma," AllMusic.com , http://www.allmusic.com (January 2, 2007).
"Louise Talma." Grove Music Online , http://www.grovemusic.com (January 2, 2007).
The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives , Vol. 4, reproduced in Biography Resource Center , http://www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (January 2, 2007).