Music Louise Talma
Kendra Preston Leonard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 March 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0180


American composer Louise Talma (b. c. 1906–d. 1996) was primarily active from the mid-1920s to 1990. She began her musical career as a concert pianist but became interested in composition and studied in New York with Harold Brockway and Percy Goetschius at the Institute of Musical Art (later the Juilliard School) between 1922 and 1926 before becoming a student of Nadia Boulanger in 1927 at the Conservatoire Américain in Fontainebleau, France. Talma was noticeably reticent when it came to speaking about her music and soliciting performances. Articles about her note that she struggled to obtain performances of her works; her letters reveal a deep anxiety regarding working and even associating with others, suggesting that she found it psychologically difficult to promote her works as was expected and required of composers. Ultimately, very few of her more than eighty pieces were performed during her lifetime. Talma was equally reluctant to work with scholars interested in her works. While she would occasionally submit to an interview or answer a letter of questions about her pieces, she was more likely to ignore requests for interviews or assistance. There are more mentions of Talma’s personality in articles about the MacDowell Colony, where she frequently spent her summers, than there are about the pieces she wrote there. Only in regard to her opera The Alcestiad does Talma appear to have embraced the brief whirlwind of fame created around her during the opera’s premiere in Frankfurt in 1962. Indeed, the German journalists assigned to cover that event provide more musical analysis of her work in the small group of articles they wrote about it than any scholars had done for her works until the early 21st century. Despite Talma’s lack of cooperation with scholars during her life, she has been invaluable in death: somewhat of a packrat, Talma saved thousands of letters written to and by her (she often made rough drafts and edited them before sending them out); notes for compositions and sketches; scores of her own works and by others; legal documents; photographs; and more. The bulk of this collection is held at the Library of Congress, although there are other archives with Talma papers or collections. Talma’s music is becoming more available through the liberal photography practices of the Library of Congress’s Performing Arts Reading Room and print-on-demand possibilities from publishers. This availability, coupled with the increasing digital accessibility of newspaper archives, scholarly articles, and books, should mean that work on this notable woman and her music will expand significantly as the 21st century progresses.

General Overviews

Until the 2010s, Talma was mentioned frequently but only very briefly in studies of women in music or 20th-century composers, and even in these works she is generally noted primarily as having been a student of Nadia Boulanger. A number of books on 20th-century composers and women in music in the 20th century, such as those by Madeleine Goss (Modern Music-Makers, New York: Dutton, 1952) and Jane Weiner LePage (Women Composers, Conductors, and Musicians of the Twentieth Century: Selected Biographies, London: Scarecrow, 1980), have fallen out of date because of more recent research and the availability of material on Talma, her life, and her works. Many newspaper and other popular articles on Talma focus on her time at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York. While the newspapers and articles provide a glimpse of her life at these artist colonies, they generally do not offer much useful information about her works or compositional process. Ammer 2001 uses material that is based on a questionnaire the author sent Talma in the 1980s. Dragone 2003 makes use of a brief interview with Talma in person, although, as Dragone notes, Talma was not particularly helpful or forthcoming. Ericson 1977 and Horowitz 1977 review a concert held in honor of Talma for her fiftieth year of teaching at Hunter College, in New York City, and Crutchfield 1986 covers a concert celebrating Talma’s eightieth birthday. The information contained in the collection Edwards and Lassetter 2001 is a standard understanding of Talma’s life and career, while Harris 2002 analyzes select works by Talma. The obituary Kozinn 1996 is the New York Times’ official obituary; the author had previously attended concerts at which her works were performed, but never reviewed them in depth.

  • Ammer, Christine. Unsung: A History of Women in American Music. Portland, OR: Amadeus, 2001.

    Frames Talma as one of Boulanger’s star pupils and provides an overview of her career, noting Stravinsky and Irving Fine’s (b. 1914–d. 1962) influences on her work. Briefly describes a number of Talma’s works from throughout her career, discusses her adoption of serial techniques, and notes her trouble in securing performances of her works.

  • Crutchfield, Will. “A Tribute to Louise Talma.” New York Times (12 October 1986), sec. 1.

    Briefly analyzes Talma’s musical language and compositional approach over her career through the compositions performed at a 1986 concert of her works at Merkin Hall in New York City, including the premieres of Kaleidoscopic Variations and Full Circle. Also reviews the late works Diadem and Voices of Peace. Finds Diadem uninspired, but writes that Voices of Peace contains the sound of a mature composer comfortable in her own skin and is lively, but not impassioned.

  • Dragone, Luann. “Stylistic Tendencies and Structural Design in the Music of Louise Talma.” PhD diss., City University of New York, 2003.

    Provides a basic biography of Talma and analyzes “One Need Not Be a Chamber to Be Haunted”; Piano Sonata No. 1; the first movement of the string quartet; Sonata for Violin and Piano; Summer Sounds; and The Ambient Air. Includes an interview with Talma.

  • Edwards, J. Michele, and Leslie Lassetter. “North American since 1920.” In Women and Music: A History. 2d ed. Edited by Karin Pendle. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

    Mentions the influence of Stravinsky and Fine on Talma’s work. Discusses Talma’s evolving approaches to serialism and critiques The Alcestiad and Have You Heard? Do You Know? as missed opportunities to critique gender issues.

  • Ericson, Raymond. “Celebrating Louise Talma.” New York Times (4 February 1977).

    Talma’s life and works, marking her fiftieth year of teaching at Hunter College.

  • Harris, Carole Jean. “The French Connection: The Neo-Classical Influence of Stravinsky, through Nadia Boulanger, on the Music of Copland, Talma, and Piston.” PhD diss., State University of New York–Buffalo, 2002.

    Mentions All the Days of My Life, Terre de France, Infanta Marina, “Let’s Touch the Sky,” A Time to Remember, The Alcestiad, and The Divine Flame.

  • Horowitz, Joseph. “Music of Louise Talma Presented.” New York Times (7 February 1977).

    Short overview of Talma’s life and career in the context of a concert of her works presented in honor of her fiftieth year of teaching at Hunter College. Observations include that Terre de France contains decidedly French flavors; that the Piano Sonata No. 2 applies tonal and serial elements “inconsistently”; and that in Talma’s later works, the vocal lines are mirrored by the instrumental writing.

  • Kozinn, Allan. “Louise Talma, Neo-Classical Composer, 89.” New York Times (15 August 1996), sec. D.

    Obituary. Summary of Talma’s life and career, noting her neoclassical approaches.

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