As we mark what would have been our 61st annual Medal Day this weekend, we are featuring composers in our Legacy series, and so are honoring a dear friend of MacDowell who enjoyed 41 residencies between 1943 and 1995, composer Louise Juliette Talma.
Louise Talma (1906–1996) composed in a distinctive, often neo-Classical style. She wrote many vocal pieces, including song cycles and the first American opera by a woman to be staged at a major European opera house. In all, Talma composed more than 40 significant works in her lifetime. She also became the first American to teach at the prestigious Fontainebleau School and was a faculty member at New York City's Hunter College for more than half a century.
Talma was born in Arcachon, France, a resort town near Bordeaux. Her father died while she was still a child, and her mother, a singer, moved with her daughter to New York City in the summer of 1914. There, Talma studied chemistry at Columbia University while pursuing piano and composition studies at the Institute of Musical Art, the music academy that later became the Juilliard School of Music. Talma took courses there from 1922 until 1930, winning the Seligman Prize for composition in 1927, 1928, and 1929. She later earned her bachelor of music degree from New York University in 1931, and in 1933, an M.A. degree from Columbia.
Talma's earliest compositions included Song of the Songless (1928); Three Madrigals (1928), a piece for voice and string quartet with vocal settings that characterized much of her later work; Two Dances (1934); and a sacred work titled In principio erat verbum (1939), which won the Stovall Prize at the Fontainebleau School in both 1938 and 1939.
Beginning in 1943, Talma began decades of residencies at MacDowell, the most of any MacDowell Fellow, followed by playwright Esther Willard Bates, who had 35, and composer Mabel Wheeler Daniels, who had 25 residencies. The majority of Talma’s compositions were written here, and she met and was influenced by composers of the so-called Boston school (Arthur Berger, Lukas Foss, Irving Fine, Harold Shapero, and Claudio Spies). She continued to write in her neo-Classical style until 1954, when serial techniques appeared in her composition Six Etudes for piano. In her opera The Alcestiad (1955 - 1958), with text by Thornton Wilder, she combined her previous tonality with these new serial procedures.