Talma, Louise (1906–1996)

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Talma, Louise (1906–1996)

French-born American composer, first woman to win the Sibelius Award in composition, who was known as the dean of American women composers. Born in Arcachon, France, on October 31, 1906; died on August 13, 1996; attended Columbia University; studied at the Institute of Musical Art in New York under Howard Brockway, George Wedge, Helen Whily, and Percy Goetschius; studied piano with Isidor Philipp; studied under Nadia Boulanger at the Fontainebleau School of Music.

Born in Arcachon, France, in 1906, Louise Talma was reared by her mother, an operatic singer, after her father died in an accident. Talma studied at the Institute of Musical Art in New York under Howard Brockway, George Wedge, Helen Whily , and Percy Goetschius; she also studied piano with the renowned keyboard pedagogue Isidor Philipp. After attending Columbia University, she was at the Fontainebleau School of Music for 17 summers studying with Nadia Boulanger , the teacher who taught Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, and working as a teacher herself. Though she never imposed a style on her students, Boulanger was enormously enthusiastic about Igor Stravinsky's music. Inevitably, Stravinsky's work influenced Talma, while Boulanger renewed a desire in Talma to compose. Even though she had published no music, Talma applied for a Guggenheim fellowship at Boulanger's insistence. This advice proved fortuitous: Talma was the first woman to receive such a grant for composition.

Talma, who taught at Hunter College, composed many works. One of her most famous is her opera The Alcestiad, adapted from Thornton Wilder's play Life in the Sun. She had labored over the opera for five years and received a Senior Fulbright research grant in 1955–56 in order to spend ten months in Rome working on it. With Wilder's libretto, Alcestiad premiered on March 1, 1962, at Frankfurt-am-Main, making Talma the first American woman ever to have an opera staged at a major European opera house. That night, Wilder and Talma received a 20-minute ovation from the audience. Talma's pieces have been performed in recitals and concert halls throughout Europe and America. She was the first woman to be elected to the music department of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the only American to teach at Fontainebleau in the summers during the late 1930s.


Cohen, Aaron I. International Encyclopedia of Women Composers. 2 vols. NY: Books & Music (USA), 1987.

Page, Tim. "Gideon and Talma at 80—Composers and Neighbors," in The New York Times Biographical Service. October 1986, pp. 1276–1277.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia