Kendra Preston Leonard on Louise Talma

The following is a guest post by musicologist Kendra Preston Leonard of the Journal of Music History Pedagogy. Leonard delivers the Fall 2013 American Musicological Society Lecture at the Library of Congress on September 24, 2013.

Kendra Preston Leonard

When American composer Louise Talma died in 1996, the Library of Congress and the executors of her will descended on the apartment she had lived in since the 1930s to pack up her papers and scores, which became the Louise Talma Collection. Talma liked to save things, and she was a prodigious letter-writer. Christmas cards, lists, notes to herself. Oberlin tells me that he found a shoebox of materials stuffed high up in a closet: they included family letters and correspondence between Talma’s mother and family and Caruso and Patti, as well as artistic nude and clothed photos of Talma as a young girl. Thinking that Talma might have wanted those kept out of public view, if she even remembered she had them, he kept those himself until recently, when he donated them to an archive.

Among Talma’s papers at the Library of Congress are drafts of letters she sent others, fair copies of letters to and from others. While many of these letters and notes are mundane— orders to the piano-tuner, birthday cards, and correspondence about what train she’d be on when she traveled to the MacDowell Colony or Yaddo—others are crucial to our understanding of her as a person and a composer; her files have even turned up compositions previously unknown or thought lost.

Thornton Wilder and Louise Talma examine their opera, The Alcestiad, ca. 1958. Photograph. Records of The MacDowell Colony, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (56). Courtesy of The MacDowell Colony

One-time Talma student Jenna Orkin recalls her teacher saying that a composer should be judged on her music alone, but her collection of letters, some of them with annotations including dates, the identities of the people discussed within, and other information, were clearly meant to create a kind of paper trail for others to follow after she had died. The collection contains remarkable documents: Talma explaining her method of serial and serially-derived composition, the source of a melody or motif, her feelings about her own mentor, Nadia Boulanger, after their relationship had broken apart and partially mended. Her letters chronicle her progress on new works, her health, and what she was reading (lots of detective novels and mysteries). They show her looking through possible text sources, and selecting poems, speeches, and individual lines to set as song. The faint scent of cigarette smoke and coffee lingers on many, and it’s easy to envision her sitting at a table with books spread about her as she reads a poem and begins marking out the meter and rhythm of the first stanza.

The Library’s sound collections of Talma’s materials are just as fascinating. They contain the only known recordings of many of her pieces, including her string quartet; the concert of her works given by Hunter College for her eightieth birthday; recordings of her playing the piano with Lukas Foss and Beveridge Webster; and the broadcasts of her opera The Alcestiad, the first by an American woman to be performed in Europe. There are some surprises as well: recordings she made on tape of found and electronic sounds, part of a brief interest in musique concrète and electronic music; the piece “Song and Dance” for violin and piano, for which the score has been lost; and recordings of pieces she liked, or performers she knew, now mostly forgotten.

I could never choose a favorite among all of the items in the Louise Talma Collection, but I am particularly fond of a recording she made of excerpts of her opera. It was made at Hunter College, and she’s explaining the work to an audience. With her are two singers; a third was sick that day, and so Talma, in addition to playing her very difficult opera at the piano, also sings one of the parts, the tenor part of the Watchman. She is wry and witty in explaining the plot of the opera and the way in which the melodies work together. Her voice is weathered and rough, but not unpleasant, and when she sings, she puts her entire body and being into it, the consummate musician performing her own unique compositional voice.

Event Listing
American Musicological Society Lecture
“Meaning and Myth in Louise Talma’s First Period Works”
Kendra Preston Leonard, Journal of Music History Pedagogy
Featuring Elizabeth Overmann (soprano) and Dave Foley (piano)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 – 12:00pm (Coolidge Auditorium)
Free & Open to the Public
Click here for more information
Event Flyer

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