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Listening to Talma: two videos and a book excerpt

I just heard from American Century Music, which might be interested in programming some of Talma’s works. I’m excited about this and really hope they select some for upcoming concerns. In the meanwhile, here are recordings of her Piano Sonata no. 1 (II. Larghetto), composed in 1943, and her 1945 Alleluia in Form of Toccata. (Both links open in a new window in YouTube.)

An excerpt from my book on Talma on the Alleluia, and its relationship with the Piano Sonata no. 1:

Talma’s Piano Sonata no. 1 did more than just give her entrance to the twentieth-century piano repertoire: it attracted the notice of other composers, performers, and patrons of new music. Suddenly, Talma was in demand. Her 1944 Toccata for Orchestra was performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1946, and published that year for the Juilliard School by the American Music Center, Inc. after willing the Juilliard Publication Prize.1 Likewise, her Alleluia in the Form of a Toccata for solo piano, completed in 1945, was readily accepted by pianists both familiar with the Piano Sonata no. 1 and new to her works.2 It is also likely that the success of these works, along with her song cycle Terre de France, helped her win her Guggenheim awards in 1946 and one in 1947, the first time a woman composer had won two back-to-back awards.

“The Toccata for Orchestra, dedicated to Reginald Stewart, the director of the Peabody Conservatory and one of Talma’s friends who had tried to intervene in the Boulanger rift, received mixed reviews. Shortly after its publication, Alvin Etler found it somewhat repetitive and naïve, but nonetheless likely to please audiences; an anonymous New York Times critic called it “buoyant, youthful music,” but marred by “prolixity, repetition, [and] backing and filling. On the other hand, Paul Hume called it a “stunning, virtuoso affair.”3 The Alleluia received a more welcoming reception: although some felt it too was longer than it needed to be, it was described as a “brilliant study in complicated rhythms.”4 In any event, these three works of the early 1940s helped to cement Talma’s reputation as a serious composer.

“It is easy to see the close relationships of the Toccata for Orchestra and the Alleluia with Talma’s Piano Sonata no. 1. All three use a primary dotted rhythm motif, block form that includes loose variations on key materials, and elements of neo-classicism. That the two works are toccatas and owe a debt to earlier forms and compositional techniques is made clear not just through their titles but also the constant motion throughout each piece and the uses of ostinati and pattern completion in them. Talma structures the Toccata as a rondo with two contrasting sections. It opens with a trumpet fanfare that introduces the dotted eighth-sixteenth motif that will propel the piece forward; this is picked up by the winds and strings following the fanfare and the composition goes nonstop from that point. A second motif, marked cantabile, appears in measure ten in the strings and consists of a rhythm of dotted quarter-dotted quarter-quarter (and the reverse, beginning with the undotted quarter note) that mimics the clave rhythm of Latin American music, particularly Latin jazz. However, Talma sets this motif against accented eighths starting on the off-beat, disrupting the sense of meter and eliminating all possibility of her referencing clave or any other popular rhythms. Instead, she creates metrical instability through the use of shifting accents and varying the long-short motif of the introductory measures by augmenting them and changing their placement in the measure.

At measure 87, Talma eliminates the dotted eighth-sixteenth pattern and shifts from an emphasis on duple eighth notes to triplets. At this point she also thins the texture by dropping many of the instruments. Throughout this B block, she introduces instruments for a few measures only to have them exit and be replaced by other combinations of instruments in chamber music-like arrangements. The A materials return at measure 320 in a short recapitulation of the opening block, but this ends abruptly at measure 325, where Talma introduces longer note values, including half notes, for the first time. This segues into a return to B material at measure 382. A transition involving polyrhythms emerges in the measures leading up to measure 455, where Talma indicates another return to Tempo I and the work ends much as it began, with duple eighths underneath a dotted eighth-sixteenth motif.

“In contrast to the Piano Sonata no. 1, the Toccata is firmly diatonic. Talma establishes G major in the first measure, and uses traditional harmonic progressions to modulate to mostly close key areas, including the dominant, the relative minor, and the mediant. Perhaps because Talma hoped that this work would be performed for audiences less capable of understanding complex chromaticism or following limited pitch class sets, the Toccata is rarely very dissonant or difficult to follow, harmonically or melodically. Contrapuntal passages are highly consonant, often featuring thirds and fifths, intervals established as important to the work in the opening trumpet fanfare.

“The Alleluia is dedicated to composer and painter Harold and Esther Shapero, fellow MacDowell colonists. It opens with an eleven-measure introduction that establishes a rhythm of sixteenth-dotted eighth, which is often tied to longer values. Talma establishes the key as D minor, although in this block and throughout the piece she places many key-defining chords in first inversion, emphasizing the role of the third in the tonic triad. This opening is remarkably like that of 13 Ways in that it provides all of the elements that Talma will use for the remainder of the piece, including the dotted rhythm; runs that begin on the mediant and drop to the tonic before rising through the mediant and sub-dominant on their way to the tonic an octave above its first placement; figures that begin on the offbeat and skew the sense of beat and create syncopations; and passages that focus on one tessitura of the keyboard or another.

Example 4-5: Alleluia in the form of Toccata, mm 1-11

“Also like the earlier Toccata, the Alleluia is in a rondo form with distinct A and B sections. The A material consists of near-constant eighth notes in the left hand and a pattern of quarter rest-two eighths-two quarters in the right hand that frequently outline the harmony suggested by the left hand. The B section is in contrast to this in the right hand, which has long, slurred lines outlining intervals of a fifth, but the left hand remains in motion, albeit emphasizing offbeats and creating not only a syncopation with the right hand but also a metrical displacement.

“The Introduction lasts from measures 1-11; the first A section is from measures 12-66; the first B section goes from measure 67 to measure 103; measure 104 marks the return of A, which lasts until measure 120. The second B section takes place from measure 121 to the first beat of measure 141; the third A lasts from measure141 to measure 224, where a short interpolation of B material returns; the final A section lasts from measure 238 to the end (measure 253).

“Using traditional diatonic harmony, Talma modulates to related key areas every few measures. At measure 12, she changes the tempo from Allegro to Allegro vivace and begins the second block, now using D as the third of B major; she later modulates to G major, A minor, and F major before arriving back at D minor at measure 67, the start of the B section. Similar motion takes place in the following blocks, with a formal key change at measure 104 to D major; this reverts to the parallel minor at measure 190.

“The Alleluia, while still virtuosic and difficult, is nonetheless a more performer- and audience-friendly work than the more complex Piano Sonata no. 1. However, critical and performer response indicated that this kind of piece, with an easily recognizable form, more clearly defined tonal structures and practices, and distinguishable relationships between thematic materials and their variations (in lieu of true development), was what Talma needed to produce in order to solidify her reputation as a composer to watch and to help her achieve a higher profile as a composer. Her other instrumental works from the 1940s and early 1950s attest to this perception: while the 1946 Italian Suite for piano is missing, a short work for organ, “Wedding Piece: Where Thou Goest I Go” (1946); Venetian Folly: Overture and Barcarolle (1946-7); the “Pastoral Prelude” for piano (1949); “Bagatelle” for piano (1950); and “Song and Dance” for violin and piano (1951) all reference earlier forms (the “Overture” to the Venetian Folly is toccata-like, and the “Barcarolle” is exactly as the title describes it); use familiar harmonic language, including diatonicism and pentatonicism, the latter through the use of limited pitch class sets); and are short and dazzling, designed to be crowd-pleasers”

1“Columbia to Offer New Graham Dance,” New York Times, May 10, 1946.

2“Composers’ 5th Concert,” New York Times, April 1, 1946; Richard Keith, “Miss Tolson In Brilliant Performance,” New York Times, May 24, 1949; Marion Zarzeczna to Louise Talma, January 25, 1956, Louise Talma Collection, Library of Congress.

3Alvin Etler, “Reviewed Work(s): Toccata by Louise Talma,” Notes 2nd Series, Vol. 5, no. 4 (Sept., 1948): 521; “Bacon Suite Given ,” New York Times, May 12, 1946; Paul Hume, “Top Names Add Luster To Contemporary Works,” Washington Post, February 3, 1963, L14.

4Keith, “Miss Tolson In Brilliant Performance.”



Cecile Talma, mother of composer Louise Talma

Cecile Talma, mother of composer Louise Talma

A photo of soprano Alma Cecile Garrigues Talma, used in promotional materials for a concert at Converse College, SC, May 1914.


The book and other projects

This week I’m working on my Richard III project for next week’s author conference in New York for the OUP Handbook for Music & Disability, and back on Talma chapter 4.

For the New York conference, I’ll be presenting my research on the Walton score for Olivier’s film adaptation of the play. Originally I had included material on the Loncraine/Mckellen adaptation as well, but I think that focusing on just one film, at this juncture, will easily fill up the words I’m allowed and will present a more tightly constructed chapter in the end. So I’m revising some as I got.

For Talma chapter 4, I need to analyze two movements of her oratorio The Divine Flame and one or two of the songs from the period I’m writing about, which is mostly the 40s and early 50s. Then it’s on to serialism and the string quartet in the mid-50s. There will be three more chapters after the one on serialism: the one on The Alcestiad is essentially complete, and then I’ll have two more to write by my October deadline. I’m pretty much on schedule.


Upon returning to the US….

Sometimes I wish this blog was still mostly pseudonymous. Because I’d really like to vent about some things, but can’t.


My trip to the UK was fantastic. I got a lot of good research done at the BL both on my current R3 chapter project and on a different project. London was cool and spring-like and wonderful, and my flights were easy and only halfway full, so I got to spread out and sleep in both directions. I ate well (I love you, Tas Pide!), saw two excellent performances of Shakespeare at the Globe, saw stormtroopers and Darth Vader at Forbidden Planet, and even got in a day of leisure on the Bank Holiday.

Yesterday I rested and caught up on things, and then slipped in the kitchen and broke my nose, and tore up stuff in my knees. Actually, all of me hurts. The dogs were worried. I was in shock for about 20 minutes. But I did manage after a while to get up off the floor and put ice on my face, and then clean up and tape my nose. I have two spectacular black eyes.

But what had my fabulous husband done while I was away? He’d installed a grab bar and cleaned the jacuzzi tub, so it was ready and waiting for me after my trip. And that’s where I spent part of the evening. I’m so happy to be home.

New poem published

My poem “Professor Medusa” has been published at Haggard and Halloo. I’d reprint it here, but the publishers there added a great photo you shouldn’t miss:

Chapter 4 update

I’m still working on Chapter 4, which will cover Talma’s works from 1943-51, including Piano Sonata no. 1 and the Toccata for Orchestra, the song cycle Terre de France, the oratorio The Divine Flame, and some of the songs eventually collected into Seven Songs. I’ve spent the last week or so analyzing the Piano Sonata no. 1, a fascinating piece, and writing about it from a theoretical point of view. Now I’ll examine what it represented in terms of Talma’s career.

Chapter 4 word count to date is 6,775, bringing the total to 52,400. I think I’m about 1/4-1/3 of the way through Chapter 4. Chapter 5 is written, as it served as the basis for an article coming out later this year, but will need a little revising.

I’ve recently given talks on song and women in music at a couple of colleges and universities, including the University of Cincinnati-Blue Ash College, Youngstown State University, and the University of Richmond. If you’d like to to come talk about these or other topics in which I work at your school, either for a special lecture or just in class, please let me know. I’d love to do it if I can.

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