Louise Talma's Christmas Carol

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Discovered in 2009 at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University, Louise Talma's 1959 Christmas carol, playfully titled Chorus Angelorum, Piccolassima Fughetta, Molto Tonale, Sopra un Tema, Torentoni Niventis Wilderi, is a fugal motet for three voices. Written for Thornton Wilder, Talma's collaborator on her opera The Alcestiad, the work is unusual in that it represents a completely tonal work by Talma during a period when she was working in her own distinct nonstrict serial idiom, and is the only fully tonal work she composed after being inspired to work in a serial style by Irving Fine's String Quartet of 1952. It is also a glimpse into Talma's psyche at the time when she was orchestrating The Alcestiad, and into her close friendship with Wilder.

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In December 1959, while she was working on the orchestration of her opera, The Alcestiad, American composer Louise Talma (1906-1996) took a break from her work--something she usually loathed to do--to write a short musical Christmas card. (1) Its recipient was her close friend and the librettist of her opera, author and playwright Thornton Wilder. While Talma's correspondence often includes musical settings of short greetings or lines from previous letters sketched out in the margins, usually composed in a single line and lasting two or three measures, this work is more significant. Playfully titled Chorus Angelorum, Piccolassima Fughetta, Molto Tonale, Sopra un Tema, Torentoni Niventis Wilderi, it is--as the title suggests--a fugal motet written for three voices without accompaniment, taking as its text the words "Merry Christmas" and "Happy New Year" in several translations. (2) Talma dates the score as 12-13 December 1959, and it apparently reached Wilder on or around the 23d of that month. Tucked away in a letter from Wilder in the Louise Talma Papers held by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, the Chorus Angelorum does not appear in Luann Dragone's online catalog of Talma's works, nor is it listed among her compositions in standard reference works such as Grove Music Online. (3) The date of composition places it as being the only work Talma completed while working on the opera, which she formally began on 13 September 1955 and completed in piano-vocal score on 30 October 1958. (4)

The Chorus Angelorum is notable among Talma's oeuvre for several reasons. It represents a completely tonal work by Talma during a period when she was working in her own distinct nonstrict serial idiom; and is the only fully tonal work she composed after being inspired to work in a serial style by Irving Fine's String Quartet of 1952. Further, the swiftness of its composition opens a window into Talma's psyche at this point. She had just come off the end of a grueling three-year period composing The Alcestiad and, while still working up to twenty hours a day on the orchestration, was relieved that the job of creating the piano-vocal score was complete. The Chorus Angelorum also comes at a time during which the opera was under consideration by the Metropolitan Opera Company for an American premiere at the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, something that caused Talma both happiness and anxiety at. the outcome. Finally, the work is a very solid--albeit short--representation of the joy Talma took in her friendship with Wilder, who was also the dedicatee of the first of her Six Etudes for piano (1954), the Three Bagatelles (1955), and her Second Piano Sonata (1955). (5)

Talma began composing in a nonstrict serial style in the early 1950s, and The Alcestiad, which she was orchestrating at the time of the Chorus Angelorum's composition, is constructed of serially-derived motifs used to create tonal centers. Although Talma had mostly abandoned the harmonic languages and styles of her training with Nadia Boulanger at the Conservatoire Americain in Fontainebleau, France, which encompassed mastering the compositional approaches of composers from Monteverdi to Stravinsky and focused on French neoclassicism, she nevertheless focused much of her serial work on tonal centers. …