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Talma, Louisefree

  • Arthur Cohn,
  • Dorothy Regina Holcomb,
  • Sara Jobin,
  • Virginia Davidson
  •  and Gregg Smith

(b Arcachon, France, Oct 31, 1906; d Saratoga Springs, NY, Aug 13, 1996). American composer. She studied at the Institute of Musical Art, New York (1922–30); at the Fontainebleau School of Music (1926–39), where her teachers included Isidore Philipp (piano) and Nadia Boulanger (composition); and at New York (BMus 1931) and Columbia (MA 1933) universities. She taught at Hunter College, CUNY (1928–79), and was the first American faculty member at the Fontainebleau School. She became a Fellow of the MacDowell Colony in 1943. Her many awards include two Guggenheim fellowships (1946, 1947); a Senior Fulbright Fellowship (1955–6); the Sibelius Medal for Composition from the Harriet Cohen International Awards, London (1963); and election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1963, she was the first woman to be so honoured). Her opera, The Alcestiad, was the first by an American woman to be performed in a major European opera house (1962, Frankfurt).

Talma’s early works are tonal and neo-classical, showing the influence of her strong background in counterpoint and her study of Stravinsky with Boulanger. Indeed, her whole output is marked by clarity of line, gesture and proportion. The Piano Sonata no.1 (1943) and the exuberant Toccata for Orchestra (1944), both superbly tailored to their respective instrumentations, incorporate elements of jazz and Americana. Exemplifying the range of her style during this early period is the rhythmic vitality of the Alleluia in Form of Toccata for solo piano (1945) and, by contrast, the impressionistic languor of Terre de France (1943–5). In 1952, after hearing Fine’s String Quartet, Talma began to experiment with serialism; her mature style incorporates 12-note techniques within a freely tonal context. She did not adhere to strict set technique, but arranged subsets in tonally related patterns, such as in the Violin Sonata (1962), or distributed row elements among voices, as in the cantata All the Days of my Life (1963–5). In the song cycle Diadem (1978–9), clever character sketches of seven gems, shimmering clarinet trills illustrating the ‘Aquamarine’ give way to the bold angularity of ‘Diamond’. The circular structure of this work and its septuple division is also apparent in Full Circle for orchestra (1985), the last section of which (the seventh of seven) is a modified reversal of the first. The linear simplicity of Seven Episodes for flute, viola and piano (1986–7) highlights Talma’s talent for shaping a phrase; based on a row the first and last notes of which form a perfect 5th, this work exemplifies the dodecaphonic writing grounded in tonal relationship that is characteristic of her late style.

Vocal works form a significant portion of Talma’s oeuvre. Her vocal writing displays the same lyricism as her instrumental writing, although many of her choral works are contrapuntal. Her strong religious faith is reflected in her many settings of Biblical texts. Much of her music has been recorded. She is the author of Harmony for the College Student (1966) and Functional Harmony (with J. Harrison and R. Levin, 1970).




The Alcestiad (3, T. Wilder), 1955–8, Frankfurt, 1 March 1962



La belle dame sans merci (J. Keats), women’s vv, 1929–30

3 Madrigals, women’s vv, 1929–30

In principio erat verbum (Bible: St John), mixed chorus, org, 1930

The Divine Flame (orat, Bible, liturgy), Mez, Bar, mixed chorus, org, 1946–8

The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo (G.M. Hopkins), S, double mixed chorus, pf, 1950–51

Let’s Touch the Sky (e.e. cummings), mixed chorus, fl, ob, cl, 1952

La corona (J. Donne), 7 sonnets, unacc. mixed chorus, 1954–5

A Time to Remember (Bible, J.F. Kennedy, A.M. Schlesinger), mixed chorus, orch, 1966–7

Voices of Peace (Bible, Hopkins, liturgy, Bible: St Francis), mixed chorus, str, 1973

Celebration, women’s chorus, small orch, 1976–7

Ps lxxxiv, unacc. mixed chorus, 1978

Mass for the Sundays of the Year, 1984

Mass in English, unacc. mixed chorus, 1984

A Wreath of Blessings, unacc. mixed chorus, 1985

Give Thanks and Praise (Bible, W. Cowper), antiphonal double chorus, pf, 1989

In Praise of a Virtuous Woman (Bible: Proverbs), women’s vv, pf, 1990

Ps cxv, unacc. mixed chorus, 1992

Other vocal

One need not be a chamber to be haunted (E. Dickinson), S, pf, 1941

Carmine Mariana (liturgy), 28vv, pf, 1943 [arr. women’s vv, org/small orch]; Terre de France (C. Peguy, J. du Bellay, C. d’Orléans, P. de Ronsard), song cycle, S, pf, 1943–5

Leap before you look (W.H. Auden), S, pf, 1945

Letter to St Peter (E. Dean), S, pf, 1945

Pied beauty, spring and fall (Hopkins), S, pf, 1946

2 Sonnets (Hopkins), Bar, pf, 1946–50

Birthday Song (E. Spenser), T, fl, va, 1960

All the Days of my Life (cant., Bible), T, cl, vc, pf, perc, 1963–5

The Tolling Bell (W. Shakespeare, C. Marlowe, Donne), Bar, orch, 1967–9

Rain Song (J. Garrigue), S/T, pf, 1973

Have you Heard? Do you Know? (Talma), divertimento in 7 scenes, S, Mez, T, pf/(fl, vn, cl, vc, pf), 1978–9

Variations on 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (W. Stevens), S/T, fl/ob/vn, pf, 1979

Wishing Well, S, fl, 1986

Infanta Marina (Stevens), S, pf, 1988

The Lengthening Shadows, 1v, fl, vn, cl, vc, pf, 1991–2

Sonnet (J. Keats), Falling Leaves (W.S. Landor) [third song remains as sketch]



Toccata, orch, 1944

Song and Dance, vn, pf, 1951

Str Qt, 1954

Sonata, vn, pf, 1962

Dialogues, pf, orch, 1963–4

3 Duologues, cl, pf, 1967–8

Summer Sounds, cl, 2 vn, va, vc, 1969–73

Lament, vc, 1980

The Ambient Air, fl, vn, vc, pf, 1980–83

Studies in Spacing, cl, pf, 1982;

Fanfare for Hunter College, 2 tpt, 3 trbn, 1983

Full Circle, chbr orch, 1985

7 Episodes, fl, va, pf, 1986–7

Conversations, fl, pf, 1987

Spacings, va, pf, 1994

Kbd (solo pf, unless otherwise stated)

Four-Handed Fun, pf 4 hands/2 pf, 1939

Pf Sonata no.1, 1943

Pf Sonata no.2, 1944–5

Soundshots, 20 short pieces, 1944–74

Alleluia in Form of Toccata, 1945

Wedding Piece, org, 1946

Venetian Folly, ov. and barcarolle, 1946–7

Pastoral Prelude, 1949

Bagatelle, 1950

6 Etudes, 1953–4

3 Bagatelles, 1955

Passacaglia and Fugue, 1955–62

Textures, 1977

Kaleidoscopic Variations, 1984

Ave atque vale, 1989

MSS in US-Wc

Principal publisher: Carl Fischer

Principal recording company: CRI, Musical Heritage Society


  • GroveW (A. Cohn, D.R. Holcomb, S. Jobin) [incl. further bibliography]
  • M. Goss: ‘Louise Talma’, Modern Music Makers (New York, 1952), 382–91
  • E. Barkin: ‘Louise Talma: “The Tolling Bell”’, PNM, 10/2 (1971–2), 142–52
  • C. Ammer: Unsung: a History of Women in Music (Westport, CT, 1980)
  • S.C. Teicher: The Solo Works for Piano of Louise Talma (diss., Peabody Institute, Johns Hopkins U., 1983)
  • S.C. Teicher: ‘Louise Talma: Essentials of her Style as Seen through the Piano Works’, The Musical Woman: an International Perspective, i: 1983, ed. J.L. Zaimont and others (Westport, CT, 1984), 128–46
The New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers
Washington, DC, Library of Congress, Music Division
Perspectives of New Music