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Louise Talma (1906-1996)

Talma was an American composer who won a plethora of awards for her works. She studied composition with Nadia Boulanger at the Fontainebleau School of Music in France, and from 1936 was the first American member of the faculty there. She was the first woman to be awarded two Guggenheim fellowships. Among her many other honours were a Senior Fulbright Research Grant, and the Sibelius Medal for Composition from the Harriet Cohen International Awards. Talma was also the first American woman to have an opera performed in a major European opera house; it received a 20 minue standing ovation. Her early works are tonal and neo-classical, and her whole output is marked by clarity of line, gesture and proportion. In the 1950s she began to experiment with serialism, and developed a mature style that incorporated 12-tone techniques into a freely tonal context.

To hear Diana Ambache talk about Louise Talma, click here.
To hear Bruce Duffie interview her, click here.
To read a personal memory of Talma by one of her pupils, click here


The Ambache Chamber Orchestra recording of Talma's music was released by Naxos Records in July 2005. Some sound clips from the CD are below, plus purchase details.

Click on these works and the biography for more details below:
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Full Circle. 1985
2 fl, cl, timp, perc, pn, strings. 13 mins
Adagio and Allegro interwoven
This is in one continuous movement, alternating slow and fast sections in a neo-classical language. It opens with a solo viola in melancholy mode, and her lyrical writing is highly expressive of lonely sadness. The fast sections have an attractive ironic humour, with a motor energy sometimes reminiscent of Stravinsky's rhythmic drive. The writing shows a commanding understanding of texture, in the contrasting use of strings and wind, and the colouring of the obbligato piano and the percussion (suspended cymbal, snare drum, wood blocks). The Ambache Chamber Orchestra gave the European première in October 2003; The Independent described it as "a likeable piece offering moments of real pleasure".
Here's part of Full Circle, played by my Ensemble on her CD, which can be bought on the Ambache Recordings Talma, including other works listed here.
Rental only from Carl Fischer, 2480 Industrial Blvd, Paoli, PA 19301, USA (Or through Boosey & Hawkes, London)

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Dialogues. 1963
3 fl, 2 ob, 2 cl, 2 bn, 4 tpt, 3 hn, 3 tbn, 3 tba, timp, perc, cel, xyl, solo pn. 20 mins
1. Challenge. 2. Struggle. 3. Respite. 4. Pursuit. 5. Peace.
This piece was written 'In memory of John Fitzgerald Kennedy'. It has quite angular writing, perhaps from feelings of anger at Kennedy's death. The complexity of the writing suggest it would need to be performed with a conductor. The first movement combines brilliance and lyricism. Struggle speaks for itself, and Respite has incredible delicacy. Pursuit has scherzo-like qualities, sometimes in hunting rythm, the whole comes to a restful conclusion. The publisher's version of the full score is in fact only a 2 piano reduction. There is a full score in the NYPL.
Rental from Carl Fischer (USA); or through Boosey & Hawkes, London.

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The Ambient Air. 1980-83
Flute, Violin, Cello & Piano. 15 mins
I. Echo Chamber: Moderato; II. Driving Rain: Allegro Vivace; III. Creeping Fog: Lento
The opening flute motif is described by Talma as the song of a nightingale in the courtyard of the American Academy in Rome, Spring 1956. From this evocative starting point she explores a wide range of sonorities, including muted strings, harmonics and sul ponticello. This is all part of the exceptional clarity in her thinking. It is characteristic of her late style that she combines twelve-tone technique with a tonal base. Here's part of Ambient Air, (Driving Rain) played by my Ensemble on her CD, which can be bought on the Ambache Recordings Talma, including other works listed here.
Hire from Carl Fischer.

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Seven Episodes. 1987
Flute, Viola & Piano. 7 mins
I. Andante; II. Giocoso; III. Poco meno mosso; IV. Doppio meno mosso; V. Poco piu mosso; VI. Piu mosso; VII. (No marking - double time).
The work is like a set a variations. Starting with a soulful theme, different ways of looking at it are then explored. First is a characteristically playful version, and then she returns to the lyrical mode, working gradually back to the witty and piquant manner in which she is so effective.
Henmar Press, now sold by Edition C. F. Peters No 67170

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Diadem. 1979
Tenor or soprano, Flute, Clarinet, Violin, Cello & Piano. 12 mins
I. Confucius: Moderato; II. Middle Ages: Allegro molt vivace; III. The Peterborough Lapidary: Moderato; IV. Lento; V. Allegro; VI. The Peterborough, Sloane & North Midland Lapidaries: Andante; VII. The Sloane & Peterborough Lapidaries.
This work was composed in honour of Nadia Boulanger in her 92nd year and for the Da Capo Players. The gems featured are jade, aquamarine, ruby, topaz, diamond, sapphire and emerald. They are richly celebrated in both the words and the music.
Hire from Carl Fischer, NY

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Variations of 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. 1979
Tenor or soprano, Flute or Oboe or Violin, & Piano. 8 mins
The poem by Wallace Stevens takes an enigmatic look at its topic, and has the concentration of a haiku. The voice and treble instrument alternate and combine in a beautiful dialogue, not surprisingly with bird-like motifs in the music, in a single, slowish movement.
Carl Fischer, NY

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Biography: 'Louise Talma, A Life in Composition' by Kendra Preston Leonard. 2014
This is a major biography by an important American musicologist. It covers Talma's life, works and legacy, in a book of 276 pages, and is available on the Music Studies section of Ashgate Publishing.

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Part of a personal memory by Talma's pupil Jenna Orkin:

"In her twenties, Louise Talma toyed with the idea of becoming a chemist. This was her 'wild oats' period and that's about as wild as it got, so far as anyone knows. (There was a rumour at Hunter College that she had dated Charles Ives. I'm more inclined to believe the rumour that she hated his music.) Perhaps she was intrigued by combining chemicals to make new concoctions as she had been intrigued by combining notes to make new harmonies.

"She embodies integrity with the emphasis on the 'grit'. When she gets an idea, she starts on it immediately and stays the course. Her goals are farsighted: works of art that survive. Although she would never stoop to think in such terms, she is the paragon of the liberated woman. She has done what she wanted, according to what she believes in, regardless of what anyone else might say. And, several generations ahead of her time, she does it without fanfare.

"About what she believes in: in music, it is those harmonies and forms that provided the basis and basses of all music circa 1600 until 1914: the Trinity of tonic, dominant and subdominant. It is probably no coincidence that she also has three suits that she has rotated for about eight months of the year for twenty years. Her ideals are the highest and her ideas are, it seems at times, carved in granite.

"L T's legacy is her music and I don't dare speak of that since it speaks beautifully for itself. The tribute L T would most appreciate would be a concert of her work. However, I'm happy to report that my opinion that Louise Talma would elude biographers is proving all wet: the musicologist Kendra Preston Leonard's Louise Talma: A Life in Composition is being published by Ashgate Publishing in 2014."

This is an extract from Jenna Orkin's book Writer Wannabe Seeks Brush With Death, 2013. Buy it from Amazon on this link.


Where no other Edition is listed, scores and parts can be got from Ambache.

The above Sound Clips from the Ambache/Talma Naxos American Classics CD are free; here are two more: an excerpt from the cello & piano Lament, 1980, and 'Skipping' from her piano teaching pieces Soundshots, 1944-74.
About the recording: "This CD is a real discovery. All but one of the pieces was written by Talma in her 70's and 80's. The ensembles are intricate and carefully wrought. Talma writes especially beautifully for the flute. The soloists on this disc are all virtuosi. Not the slightest allowance has to be made for its budget price. The sound is beautiful too." David Saemann, Amazon.com

The CD costs £6 (+p&p). You can order it, world-wide, using a Credit Card or PayPal. It is NOT necessary to join PayPal, just follow the 'Don't have a PayPal account?' links on this page and the system will process your credit card in the normal way.
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