Friday, August 16, 2013

Preview: Louise Talma in Her Youth

by Kendra Preston Leonard

On September 24 at the Library of Congress, I’ll give a talk on American composer Louise Talma (c. 1906–1996), her youth, and her first composition. At the same time, I’ll be putting the finishing touches on my book about Talma and her works (Ashgate, forthcoming 2014). My interest in Louise Talma stems from my first book, an institutional biography of the Conservatoire Américain in Fontainebleau, France. She was, along with Aaron Copland, one of the Conservatoire’s most successful pupils, and although her music is not performed today as frequently as it was during her lifetime, she was at one time a significant figure in the contemporary music world.

Nadia Boulanger and her class, including Lousie Talma.
(Library of Congress)
My work on the Conservatoire uncovered many documents related to Talma, who was once a protégée of Nadia Boulanger and later the first American to teach at the school. These materials, uncatalogued and mostly unknown, led me to more organized collections of Talma’s letters, scores, notes, and sketches at the Library of Congress and at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which houses materials related to her collaboration with Thornton Wilder on their opera The Alcestiad. It was evident from these collections, along with those in private hands and at other repositories, that despite her heavily guarded and private persona, she kept everything—from score drafts to shopping lists—for posterity. One of her former students wrote to me, “[She] was adamant about a composer’s being known only for her work rather than her life, but in view of the epistolary trail she left, she must have been well aware of what she was in for.”

“Epistolary trail” only begins to describe the boxes and boxes of letters, telegrams, drafts of letters, cards, and transcripts of conversations she left behind at her death. While it’s obvious that some materials have been lost, in general she retained letters ranging from the 1930s to her death. Even with letters that were destroyed, Talma nonetheless usually saved the envelopes so as to record dates of receipt, often making notes or comments as to what had been inside. Of the letters she did save, Talma often annotated them, identifying casual “Saturdays” and “Tuesdays” with the exact date, and identifying individuals referred to by nicknames. She was a re-reader, once telling Wilder that he could donate their opera-related correspondence to Yale only after she’d made copies of all of their letters, “as I can't bear not to have them in immediate reach so that at any moment I can live over again the joy I had on receiving them.”

Her scores, musical sketches, and notes for works are also often annotated. In selecting texts to set as songs, she identified poems “about death—mostly of a young girl,” and marked others as humorous, nature-related, or personal. She copied out texts she considered setting; made fair copies of her scores; identified portions of rows in her more serially-influenced pieces; took dictation from birds, the sounds of silverware falling on the floor, and the sounds of the cities in which she lived;  made copies of the letters she sent, so that she would remember exactly what she had written; and kept track of how much composing she had done each day by writing the date and time she stopped at the end of each day into the manuscript at hand.

With such an abundance of material, especially combined with the fact that so many of Talma’s pieces were overtly autobiographical in nature—such as her religious works, which serve as conversion narratives, her musical responses to the Vietnam War and the Kennedy assassinations, and others—it seemed only logical to explore the issue of musical autobiography in her work. While there were plenty of other approaches to take with Talma’s work, including traditional musical analysis, queer theory, feminist theory and analysis—all of which I use in my work—reading both deeply and broadly in women’s autobiographical theory led me to decide that using it autobiography as a frame for Talma’s work was altogether appropriate. It also offered a relatively new way of examining the conjunctions of a composer’s life and work. Although the autobiographical reading of works of music is not new and has been done before, particularly with Berg, Berlioz, Mahler, and other male composers, the direct application of women’s autobiographical theory and the concept and theory of écriture féminine to works of music is less common. Hélène Cixous has famously written that “women must write themselves,” and this need not be limited in any way to prose writing.

This approach has proved illuminating. Once I began to understand Talma’s writing—both prose and musical—as a form of self-writing engaged with the sociopolitical and creative atmospheres in which she worked, the connections between her self and her music became even more striking. And while there are competing theories of women’s self-writing, no scholars can deny the complexity of the issue of women writing their own lives in a culture in which women are viewed as—and frequently view themselves as—the Other. Talma’s works serve as rich, multi-layered examples for this point and many others put forth by theorists of women’s self-writing.

Between Talma’s letters and her compositions, reading with the theories of women’s autobiography in mind has enabled me to chart the course of her life and development as a composer and artist with far more information than a more traditional approach or even mix of approaches to her works might have supplied. This study, along with old-fashioned digging, interviews, and time spent with microfilm, has revealed her fears, hopes, compromises, and decisions in ways that can only benefit both the scholarly understanding and performative interpretation of her music.

Note: Kendra Preston Leonard's lecture is now available as a webcast

From her home base in Loveland, Ohio, Kendra Preston Leonard serves as Managing Editor of the online Journal of Music History Pedagogy and director of the Silent Film Sound and Music Archive.

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