This is a guest post from Kendra Leonard, author of Louise Talma: A Life in Composition
American composer Louise Talma (c.1906–1996), herself a strong-willed and independent woman, often celebrated those qualities in others, dedicating many of her pieces to the women who had made a difference in her life and in the lives of other artists. Recipients of such dedications included music pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, MacDowell Colony co-founder Marian MacDowell, and singer Geraldine Marwick. One of Talma’s last works was a setting for female voices and piano of Proverbs 31:10–30, “In Praise of a Virtuous Woman,” which was composed in the autumn of 1990 at the MacDowell Colony. While the piece is dedicated to Virginia Davidson and the Treble Singers, it celebrates all women.
“Who can find a virtuous woman?” asks the text. “Her price is above rubies.” Beginning with simple melodic lines in the two vocal parts—a soprano and alto—and a spare and elegant counterpoint in the piano, Talma’s music becomes increasingly more complex and densely textured as the four-minute piece progresses. The two voices sometimes declaim together, in unison, and sometimes engage in dialogue, mirroring one another’s lines, or offering supporting harmonies to each other. As the soprano sings of the word women do—“She layeth her hands to the spindle…she layeth her hands to the needy…she worketh willingly with her hands,”—the alto recites the names of hard-working and strong women from the Bible: Martha, Ann, Mary, and Elizabeth.
At the end of the piece, Talma sets the text “she shall rejoice in time to come” at the very top of the soprano’s singing range, an exultation bolstered by the altos, who for the first time split from singing together as a single voice as if to show that two melodic lines aren’t enough for all of the praise a virtuous woman is due, and sing in parallel fourths, creating the sound of an organ. As the singers call for the praise of the virtuous woman, Talma gives the piano a fast and chromatic passage that suggests that while women should and will be praised, their work and lives are more difficult and complicated than the words would have the listener believe. Talma’s setting of “In Praise of a Virtuous Woman” is itself a challenging work, apt praise for the women of Talma’s life who met and exceeded the boundaries and roadblocks presented to them because of their sex.
About the Author: Kendra Preston Leonard is a musicologist whose work focuses on women and music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; music and screen history; and music and disability. She is the author of The Conservatoire Américain: a History and received the inaugural Judith Tick Fellowship from the Society for American Music for her work on Louise Talma