LETTER TO LOUISE TALMA (NEVER SENT)
by JENNA ORKIN
Dear L T,
I've now known you over half my life. Of course, it's impossible to know such a reluctant subject as yourself. While earnest biographers forge down your trail, you will always elude them, smiling at their bungling efforts like a hero outwitting the Keystone Cops.
I can't write a tribute. For one thing, a tribute to L T is a contradiction in terms. You can't praise a humble person; they don't like it. Besides, tributes are doomed to failure since their goal is misguided: To idealize rather than to tell the truth. I don't know the truth but I'll tell what I do know and we'll see how it turns out. Some of the facts are no doubt inaccurate. That's why this is a reminiscence rather than a biography.
Louise Talma was born in France, the daughter of a singer and her coach. Her father died when she was a baby and at the age of eight, Louise took over his role of accompanying her mother on the piano. We don't know what effect such circumstances have on the Oedipal complex.
From the start, music was central to L T's life but it was also a demanding companion. L T's mother didn't allow her child to ride a bike, for instance, for fear she would injure her hands. In fact, for much of L T's life, the sacrifices demanded by music and those demanded by her mother get fused. It seems almost obvious that a woman of L T's generation and single-mindedness would not marry. And in fact, L T lived with and supported her mother until she died when L T was thirty-five.
From the time she was about five, L T went with her mother to eight concerts a week. Her mother supported this habit by ghost-writing reviews, a practice which was common then and which gives a new twist to the phrase 'freedom of the press'. L T kept up this pace of concert going until she was well into her eighties. I went with her to some of these concerts and became an expert L T spotter at others. With her braid pinned up on one side and her friend, Alice Hufstader, next to her in a hat with a pheasant feather rising from it, they were easy to spot. At intermission, Mrs Hufstader would get up to scan the crowd and report on her findings or L T would go out and have a cigarette.
In her twenties, L T toyed with the idea of becoming a chemist. This was her 'wild oats' period and that's about as wild as it got, so far as anyone knows. (There was a rumor when I was at Hunter, that she had dated Charles Ives. I'm more inclined to believe the rumor that she hated his music.) Perhaps she was intrigued by combining chemicals to make new concoctions as she had been intrigued by combining notes to make new harmonies. Anyway, this deviation from her straight and narrow musical path ended around the time she was hired, without a college degree, to teach music at Hunter College. She stayed there for over fifty years, recruiting Boulanger graduates for the faculty and turning the department into one of the best in the country. Somehow, she managed to get along with the musicologists as well, although she harbors a skepticism about their discipline for the same reason I distrust advice on childrearing from people who have never had children.
As a teacher, she was not for the faint of heart. She seemed to come as close as a human being could to God: Like Him, she had the air of knowing everything but she wasn't telling.
Having few foibles herself, she wasn't tolerant of them in others. It was almost eerie to see her read the future from a single act as though it was a molecule of DNA, bearing the secret of an entire personality. Once, when a student made a careless mistake, L T told him that if there was ever a group outing, she wouldn't go in a car he was driving.
Of course, both in her music and in her life, she herself is consistent as the Mass. (The only exception I know of is that although her manuscripts are impeccable, she claims her apartment would be a mess without the maid. I find that hard to believe.) She embodies integrity with emphasis on the 'grit'. When she gets an idea, she starts on it immediately and stays the course. Others may divorce, have crises and abandon careers to go fishing. L T has composed every summer of her life, either at Fontainebleau or at some artists' colony. Her goals are farsighted: works of art that survive us.
Although she would never stoop to think in such terms, she is the paragon of the liberated woman. She has done what she wanted, according to what she believes in, regardless of what anyone else might say. And, several generations ahead of her time, she does it without fanfare.
About what she believes in: In music, it is those harmonies and forms that provided the basis and basses of all music from circa 1600 until 1914: the Trinity of tonic, dominant and subdominant. It is probably no coincidence that she also has three suits that she has rotated for about eight months of the year for twenty years.
Her ideals are the highest and her ideas, it seems at times, carved of granite. Such people make great artists and lousy jurors. I remember discussing with her an article in the New Yorker about a painter who was indicted for painting realistic five dollar bills. He wasn't using them for money but he was violating a law which forbade copying money.
L T said the case was ridiculous and he wasn't guilty.
In fact the law, as it was written, may indeed have been ridiculous but he was also almost certainly violating it.
L T said that was irrelevant and if she was on the jury, she would make up her own mind. Until then, I hadn't realized the unlikely faces vigilanteism can wear.
Then there was the question of spinach. One day, I picked L T up from St Thomas More's and we went to lunch. Her dish came with a side order of spinach which she offered me because she didn't like it. We were discussing homosexuality, an idea which appalled L T. I attempted to show it to her in another light.
'Could you make yourself want this spinach?' I asked.
'I don't see what that has to do with it', she answered. 'I eat spinach when I have to.' (Actually, it was cucumbers but that vegetable is too evocative, given the context.)
As resolutely as she dismissed some people, she championed others. While M S was studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, he received $100 from L T with a note explaining that the money came from a fund for students in his position. Since such a fund had never been heard of before but since, also, L T never lies, the only explanation for this manna of money is that she created the fund herself, contributed its only contents and disbursed them.
Despite her lofty ideals and impatience with imperfection, she has a keen interest in human frailty, at least, from a distance. For instance, she loves reading other people's mail. Usually only great people's, it's true, and then only when it's been published so that it's no longer mail but correspondence. Her own letters, at least the ones to me, are guarded, as though to thwart any readers with inclinations similar to her own.
There's a facial expression L T has and I would give a great deal to know where it comes from. It's an elusive smile which is basically kindly but is also capable of taking on a knowing gleam at the recognition of human weakness. I used to hear it when I would call her from Saudi Arabia and it sustained me during the year and a half my father was dying, reminding me that outside the hospital halls, life went on and was good.
Over the years I've written L T many letters from different parts of the world. I told her of dark things and wonderful things and if these letters still existed, they would make great blackmail material. (Update following her death: Upon inquiry, Russell Oberlin, the countertenor who was in charge of her estate, assured me they did not.) When I heard from her after she'd received one, I'd hear the smile that said, 'These things come and go. From where I sit, they're like the frantic running around of ants.'
Whether we like it or not, all of us become known to some extent. We leave traces even by what we don't say or do. L T, of course, is very wise. Her trail is her music and I don't dare speak of that since it speaks beautifully for itself. In fact, the tribute L T would most appreciate would be a concert of her work. Everything else will eventually be forgotten, but not so long as there are people around who know her.
Addendum: I'm happy to report that my observation that Louise Talma would elude biographers is proving all wet: The musicologist Kendra Preston Leonard's Louise Talma: A Life in Composition will be published by Ashgate Publishing in 2014.
Copyright © 5 November 2013 Jenna Orkin,
New York City, USA