About this Recording
8.559236 - TALMA: Ambient Air / Soundshots / Full Circle
English  German 

Louise Talma (1906-96)
The Ambient Air • Lament • 7 Episodes • Variations on 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird • Conversations • Soundshots • Full Circle

Louise Talma was the foremost American neo-classical composer. In her day she was highly acknowledged in the United States and collected numerous important awards. Among the many honours she received were those of being the first woman to win two Guggenheim Fellowships (1946 and 1947), and the first woman to be elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1974). She was also the first American woman to have an opera performed at a major European opera house; the 1962 Frankfurt première of The Alcestiad, based on a play by Thornton Wilder, received a twenty minute standing ovation. She studied at the Institute of Musical Arts in New York from 1922 to 1930, and, having a French opera-singer mother, it is not surprising that she spent thirteen summers, from 1926, at the Fontainebleau School of Music in France. There she studied the piano with Isidore Philipp, and harmony, counterpoint, fugue and composition with Nadia Boulanger. She herself became a very committed teacher and taught at Hunter College, CUNY from 1928 to 1979.

Louise Talma’s music shows a keen intellectual mind, but she also engages listeners at a visceral level and entertains them with her originality and quirkiness. She frequently combines motor energy, sometimes associated with Stravinsky, with a beautiful melancholy expression, and often creates moments of extraordinary beauty, such as in the Lullaby in Seven Episodes. She seems to have warmed to the precision of neoclassicism, the discipline of Boulanger’s teaching, and French lightness of touch. While there are elements that could be connected to her time in Paris, her language is quite unique. Her output was substantial and covered a wide range of genres. She wrote numerous vocal works, both choral and solo, in which she set a great variety of texts, from the Bible and Shakespeare to Auden, John F. Kennedy and e. e. cummings. Her piano works embrace pieces for children, sonatas and the virtuoso Alleluia in Form of Toccata.

Apart from Soundshots, all the works on this disc were written in the 1980s, when Louise Talma was in her late seventies and early eighties. Her maturity gives the music a rare, distilled quality. Her musical thinking has a very focussed precision; textures are generally transparent; the atmosphere is at times ironic, strange, even bizarre, at others it has a deeply affecting sadness. The beauty of her slow music is exceptional.

The Ambient Air, written in 1983 and scored for flute, violin, cello and piano, is in four movements, Echo Chamber, Driving Rain, Creeping Fog, and Shifting Winds. Much of Talma’s music is descriptive, and here we have titles to tell us her thinking. It is appropriately evocative, and she creates striking pictures in sound. While the combination of a flute with a piano trio might suggest something light in effect, she uses the instrumental colours with great originality to paint very atmospheric musical illustrations. The first movement beautifully captures the creepy quality of an echo chamber. While the rain of the second is invigorating and energising, it performs a sardonic dance in the middle. She captures, in the third, the amorphous and elusive nature of fog. With the unpredictable nature of wind, the fourth movement rocks, sways, blows and buffets.

Talma wrote on the score of Lament that this piece was inspired by a melody heard on a one-string fiddle in Wadi Rum in Jordan. With minimal resources she has created a stark yet suggestive piece, redolent of a dry river bed, and alluding to the wailing emotions of the Middle East.

The combination of flute, viola and piano is a rare but a beautiful one. The 7 Episodes are like a concise set of variations. They open with a doleful yet tender theme, and journey through episodes of giocoso fun, a lullaby, some beautifully lyrical sections, a march, and a swaying 9/8 section, to return to playfulness and a witty end.

Variations on 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, written in 1979 and scored for tenor, oboe and piano was commissioned by the American tenor Paul Sperry as a graduation gift for his oboe-playing niece Jennifer Sperry. They gave the première, with Talma at the piano, on 26th February 1980, at Temple University, in Philadelphia. The distilled and Zen-like qualities of the words by Wallace Stevens seem particularly suited to the philosophical qualities in Talma’s music.

Conversations was written in 1987 for Patricia Spencer, flautist of the American chamber group, the Da Capo Players. Naturally, it is an intimate dialogue, and it is built episodically. As ever, Talma uses the instruments in a highly expressive way. Meditative musings are offset by dazzling flourishes, fragments of military precision by flowing lyricism.

Soundshots, written between 1944 and 1974, are crisp and witty miniatures in a rich tradition of teaching pieces written by great composers, such as Schumann’s Album for the Young, and Bartók’s Mikrokosmos. Talma’s fifty year stint at Hunter College shows what a dedicated teacher she was. Many of the pieces are delightful examples of musical onomatopoeia. For students of all ages, the playful titles attract the learner with their sense of fun.

Full Circle, written in 1985 and scored for chamber orchestra, is a single movement, built as a sequence of contrasting episodes. The opening viola solo initiates a languid section of expressive melancholy. After a burst of energy in a motor-driven Allegro, the plaintive mood returns. Another taut rhythmic section introduces a cryptic Pierrot-like episode for flute and piano. An ironic waltz leads to a fortissimo outburst, followed by heavy sighs. Next is a scherzo-like episode, first in 5/8 and then 7/8. Further outbursts bring the music back to propelling quavers, at times dancing in three, at times as a mock march. After another outburst, there are more doleful sighs, and another mocking waltz. Then the music winds down to return, as the title suggests, to the atmosphere of the beginning. Talma uses the instrumental colours to great effect; the line-up includes a piano, two flutes, a clarinet, some colourful percussion, and strings. Her flexible sense of rhythm creates a wonderful freshness in the music.

Diana Ambache

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