On Thursday, 18 October 2018, the San Francisco Girls Chorus will be performing Louise Talma’s Three Madrigals. I believe this is the first performance since the songs were premiered in 1930. The performance will be reviewed for the Journal of the International Alliance for Women in Music. The singers will be using my edition of the songs from The Art Songs of Louise Talma.
Here’s what I wrote about the songs in Louise Talma: A Life in Composition (p. 45-56):
[Talma’s] Three Madrigals (1929, texts by Sir Thomas Wyatt) and songs
“La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (1929, John Keats); “Late Leaves” (1934, Walter
Savage Landor); and “Never Seek to Tell Thy Love” (1934, William Blake) are
love songs whose texts speak of a lover’s despair over the beloved’s disinterest.18
Talma’s manuscripts indicate that the Madrigals were composed in New York,
and performances of them, as well as “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” all of which
were written to fulfill a commission by the Women’s University Glee Club in
Manhattan, conducted by Gerald Reynolds, took place there.19 It is unknown
whether Boulanger ever saw or heard them, although it is likely, given Talma’s
desire to woo Boulanger by all available means. She followed Boulanger’s musical
instruction and tastes closely, and abandoned her earlier experiments with key and
meter in an attempt to gain her teacher’s approval of her work and, by extension,
In the Three Madrigals, Talma composed her first examples of autobiographical
testimony that can be unquestionably linked to her own experiences, in this case
her emotions for Boulanger. Of women’s autobiography, Julia Watson has written
that, “many fictions of female development structure the incorporation of sexuality
as the internalization of the only sexual identity to be spoken—that of female
heterosexuality defined as the other of heterosexual masculinity. In autobiography,
which as a genre has functioned as the keeper of the ‘law’ of patriarchal identity,
women’s sexuality has usually been presumed as heterosexual except when spoken
otherwise.”20 These works are “out-law” in that they frankly express same-sex desire
on the part of the composer for her friend and mentor.
In these pieces, a male narrator, whose role is assigned to female singers (rather
than the traditional men of early madrigal practice), addresses an unrequited desire
of a woman, and the cruelty of a woman who spurns this desire. By setting multiple
texts traditionally associated with a male narrator for women, Talma does exactly
what Kaplan, Smith, and Watson suggest female writers of autobiographical prose
do: she establishes her identity as being outside of the heteronormative orthodoxy
presumed by society, and negotiates her own place within her personal and social
history. By reading Talma’s early compositions in this manner, as Watson puts it, “we may trace a trajectory of naming an unspeakable,” namely, same-sex love and desire among women.21 And because her works were meant to be quite public—she
submitted the Three Madrigals to a composition contest and agreed to have them
published by J. Fischer and Bros. as a result of winning the contest, after which they
received several performances in New York and later won Columbia University’s
Joseph H. Bearns Prize—they were without question designed to provide audiences
with Talma’s perspective.
While it was rare at the time for a composer to write works in a way that
indicated the love of one woman for another woman by setting songs with clearly
male protagonists for women’s voices, it nonetheless recalls both the seventeenth-century
practice of women writing love poetry for one another using either a male
or female point of view,22 and the contemporary practice in popular music in which
women in lesbian bars, sometimes in transvestite dress, perform songs originally
written for a male singer and about his relationships with women, changing the
male “I” of these first-person narratives to a feminine one.23 In expressing samesex
desire for Boulanger through the songs, in particular by claiming the masculine
“I” for female voices and thus female narratives, Talma made a stand for her own
sexuality, addressing her sexual identity and desires through the medium of the
works, and confirmed her position by allowing the songs to be published and
In writing these songs for public consumption, as well as performing her
devotion to Boulanger through her own personal actions, Talma constructed an
identity for herself apart from the encumbrances of society’s expectations. This
act constitutes the creation of an autobiographical manifesto as defined by Kaplan:
Talma was negotiating her identity and the degree to and means with which she
was comfortable at this period of her life. By composing love songs that the
general public would recognize as being sung by a woman to another woman and
which her close friends would recognize as reflective of her desired relationship
with Boulanger, Talma testified to her experiences using the text and its setting to
locate herself as the unrequited lover. Talma’s manuscripts indicate that the songs
were composed in New York, and performances of them took place there, but it
is unknown whether Boulanger ever saw or heard them. However, the Madrigals
depart somewhat in form and style from Talma’s earliest works, which were
much more experimental, abandoning the idea of stable key areas and meter. The
Madrigals, in contrast, are written using common-practice period harmonic and
rhythmic language and conventions, adoptions Talma made only after studying
with Boulanger and which she may have used to try to draw a favorable reception
from Boulanger. Nonetheless, they use several of Talma’s common compositional
hallmarks, including the use of non-developmental blocks to structure a piece;
using the minor and/or major second to indicate emphasis, often distress; and her practice of dis/continuity, in which she maintains continuity through some
compositional elements while creating simultaneous discontinuity with others.
Talma sets three of Wyatt’s poems in her Madrigals.These poems, “The Appeal:
An Earnest Suit to his Unkind Mistress, not to Forsake him,” “Revocation,” and
“The Careful Lover Complaineth and the Happy Lover Counseleth,” present a
narrator who continually asks the beloved to affirm her loyalty and desire, implores
her to deny her apparent rejection, and ultimately finds her cruel. Talma set the songs
for women’s voices and string quartet or piano, changing the narrator’s gender from
male to female while retaining the female gender of the beloved, altering the context
of the poetry to make the same-sex desire Talma intended to express more apparent.
The narrative provided by the arrangement of the songs in this cycle corresponds
to Talma’s responses regarding her relationship with Boulanger. Just as their early
time together was characterized by closeness, albeit friendship, it was followed
by awkwardness caused by Talma’s and Boulanger’s differing ideas about the
relationship. The narrator of “The Appeal” is perplexed that the beloved, whom the
lover has “loved […] so long/In wealth and woe among,” has begun to cast off the
lover through a withdrawal of attention and affection: “wilt thou leave me thus,/And
have no more pitye/Of him that loveth thee?/Alas, thy cruelty!/And wilt thou leave
me thus?” The lover entreats the beloved to change her mind, repeatedly pleading,
“Say nay! say nay!” The text ends with the relationship unresolved: the lover yearns
for the beloved, who returns no encouraging response; indeed, there is no response
And wilt thou leave me thus!
Say nay, say nay, for shame!
—To save thee from the blame
Of all my grief and grame.
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay! say nay!
And wilt thou leave me thus,
That hath loved thee so long
In wealth and woe among:
And is thy heart so strong
As for to leave me thus?
Say nay! say nay!
And wilt thou leave me thus,
That hath given thee my heart
Never for to depart
Neither for pain nor smart:
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay! say nay!
And wilt thou leave me thus,
And have no more pitye
Of him that loveth thee?
Alas, thy cruelty!
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay! say nay!24
While “The Appeal,” with its emphatic cries of “say nay!” could be set in a
declamatory way, interpreting the text so as to chastise the beloved and order her
to deny or reverse her rejection, Talma sets the text as a lament, signified by the
slow tempo (Andante non troppo; quarter note = 100) and the quiet dynamic indications.
Despite the exclamation points that follow each “nay,” the choruses of “say
nay”s are set to falling major second and always marked with hairpins indicating
diminuendos from “say” to “nay,” negating the emphasis given by the poet and
again creating a textbook example of a musical “sigh” as used in traditional
Renaissance madrigal practice and in works ranging from Bach to Mahler (Example 2.1)
Example 2.1 “The Appeal, mm. 1-8
“For shame” is set identically to “say nay” in the inner voices; again,
rather than a rebuke, it is instead almost wistful, echoing Talma’s dismay over
Boulanger’s lack of warmth as described in the correspondence examined above.
The “shame” is that the relationship is not proceeding, rather than that the
beloved should be ashamed for her actions. Nonetheless, the lover holds out some
hope: in contrast to the inner voices, the outer voices crescendo slightly on “for shame,” and the questions asked by the narrator end on rising tones, just as true
questions do in speech, whereas rhetorical ones move down in pitch. “And wilt
thou leave me thus?,” which rises through each iteration to forte, uses repetition
to counter disbelief, pushing the question over and over in long, slurred lines.
Contrasting modalities support the ambiguous outcome of the lover’s question.
The song initially outlines the Phrygian mode in the outermost voices and the
melody. At measure 21, when the voices state the query together and at forte,
the preceding tonality centered around E abruptly shifts with the introduction of
B-flat in contrast to the repeated B-naturals of the previous measures, briefly suggesting
a Lydian relationship based on the enharmonically spelled augmented fourth of
E–B-flat; Talma then cadences on an FM7. This tonal and modal discontinuity creates
a harmonic instability in the work that is resolved only with a formal change of
key at measure 27 from E Phrygian to F# minor.
The F# minor section begins with an extended passage on C#m7, further leading
to a sense of harmonic instability, finally cadencing on F# eight measures later at
measure 35. This section is marked Poco più mosso and although it begins with a
repetition of “And wilt thou leave me thus?,” it soon picks up the second stanza:
“That hath given thee my heart/never for to depart/Neither for pain nor smart.”
The slightly faster tempo here suggests that the lover is making one last urgent
attempt to convince the beloved that the lover is remains true, but the ritardando at
measure 43, transitioning back to Tempo I, and modulating back to E Phrygian by
again using the B-natural/B-flat dichotomy created earlier in the work indicates that this plea has not been successful, as indeed Talma’s pursuit of Boulanger was not.
The climax of “The Appeal” arrives at measures 55 and 56. After several
measures of the lover singing at piano, submissively asking for pity from the
beloved, the lover at last proclaims the beloved’s cruelty, rising dramatically to
forte over three measures that continue to include the sigh motif before cadencing
on E and A in the voices and an FM7 in the piano. This dissonance signifies the
emotional tenor of the work and the anguish on the part of the lover. Except in
cadences, all of which land on the first beat of a measure, Talma frequently avoids
using the fifth of any chord on a strong beat, preferring to add it in only fleetingly
on an off-beat either in a single voice or the accompaniment. This coyness of
establishing a tonal center in a more traditional manner reflects Talma’s own
sense of unease with the way the situation with Boulanger has been left without
solid resolution, leaving them in an uncomfortable, cautious friendship following
Talma’s overtures: the root and third are present, but the fifth, which would help
confirm the tonality/modality, is persistently absent. In the song’s coda, marked
Poco a poco più lento sino alla fine, there is a strong return to the E pentatonic of
the opening, suggesting that the emotions of the narrator have come full circle, as
do the inner voices, singing “say nay” on descending minor second. “Nay” is the
“A Revocation” continues the narrative of “The Appeal” through its expression
of the lover’s anger at the rejection by the beloved, coupled with musical reminders
of the previous song, including the use of the descending minor second as a musical sigh and swiftly shifting tonal centers. The text provides the narrative that
the lover and the beloved have exchanged meaningful words and promises to one
another, but that the beloved has not been true to those assurances; Talma may well
have misread Boulanger’s friendship and their familiarity for such pledges and felt
that Boulanger had not honored them.
The concept of betrayal and doubleness runs throughout the poem, and
Talma represents this in her setting. The narrator first asks, “Should I be led/With
doubleness?” in the first stanza, and then repeats the conceit in almost every stanza
following, citing the beloved’s “double heart,” calling her actions “unjust,” and
decrying the acts that cause the lover to be “betrayed” by her. The lack of physical
contact between the lover and the beloved is made abundantly clear and emphasized
in the final stanza, in which the narrator abandons hope of reconciliation with
an abrupt, “Farewell, unkist!” As in “The Appeal,” the lover brands the beloved
cruel, here calling her “unkind” and “unjust.” Again, Talma’s letters support this
musical testimony as to what she seems to have decided was unfair treatment on
Boulanger’s part, despite the clear lack of interest from Boulanger.
What should I say?
—Since Faith is dead,
And Truth away
From you is fled?
Should I be led
Nay! nay! mistress.
I promised you,
And you promised me,
To be as true
As I would be.
But since I see
Your double heart,
Farewell my part!
Thought for to take
‘Tis not my mind;
But to forsake
One so unkind;
And as I find
So will I trust.
Can ye say nay
But that you said
That I alway
Should be obeyed?
Or that I wist!
The song is structured in four blocks, each with a contrasting texture in the piano
while the voices provide continuity through their use of a rising three-note motif.
Although in “The Appeal,” each voice was treated equally, in “A Revocation,”
Talma singles out the second alto—her own preferred vocal position (Talma)—for
special treatment; aside from the introduction, it always enters before or after the
other three voices and usually provides contrasting melodic motion and rhythms.
“A Revocation” is angry, in contrast to the pleading quality of “The Appeal.” The
introduction, set in E major, is emphatic, at a quick tempo, and marked forte deciso.
It quickly establishes the key, a tendency to modulate to the dominant, and the motif,
after which the vocalists enter together with the first stanza’s series of rhetorical
questions, demanding, “What should I say?” Voices are frequently doubled in this
A section, both rhythmically and in pitch before launching into a counterpoint and
coming back together again for “Nay! nay! mistress.”
A more lyrical B section in C major follows, starting at measure 17. Accompanied
by a rocking tonic-dominant line in the piano, the lover recounts the promises she
and the beloved have made one another. The key change represents a different time
and space, and the top three voices are in rhythmic unison, indicating the close
relationship of the narrator and the woman she loves. However, the second alto
trails behind the top three and is more independent, providing motion when the
top voices hold pitches, a reluctant echo like the lone ascending voice that hopes
against hope in “The Appeal.” As the text moves from the lover’s recollection
of promises to her realization of the beloved’s doubleness and the necessity of
bidding the beloved farewell, the key modulates to G major and then back C major
as the narrator’s resolve to depart strengthens and her anger returns. The B section
cadences in C major, but the piano line descends chromatically, dragging the work
into a short C section in F minor, using D-naturals throughout to continue the major
second motif of the previous section. The tempo speeds up, and the upper and
lower voices are divided into pairs, the bottom more agitated than the top. The
piano line is syncopated and emphasizes the major second used to set the text
“Thought for to take” in the upper voices. This stanza, too, ends with farewell;
“farewell” and “unjust” are positioned against one another on a ii–I cadence that
indicates that the lover, while wishing to be finished, is not quite done addressing
the beloved; an emphatic cadence is avoided (Example 2.2).
Example 2.2. “A Revocation,” mm. 35-51
Talma modulates the song from F minor through A-flat major back to E major
over the course of two measures, returning to the material of the A section
and ending the song with emphatic statements of “Farewell, unkist!” and an
affirmative V/V–V–I cadence in the piano. Talma’s disappointment and anger over her treatment by Boulanger are plainly in view here, emphasized by the often
separate voicing of the second alto, and “A Revocation” stands as a declarative
document, supported by the epistolary evidence, of Talma’s own narrative.
“The Careful Lover Complaineth and the Happy Lover Consoleth” is the last
of Talma’s Three Madrigals. Spurned, the careful lover tells the happy lover of
her beloved’s unfaithfulness: “My Lady is unkind, perdie! She loveth another
better than me, And yet she will say no,” states the poem. Talma evidently saw
this as applicable to Boulanger, who, as Virgil Thomson, Léonie Rosenstiel, Jérôme Spycket, and others document, had clear favorites among her students
and often set them in competition with one another, ostensibly to push them to
improve, but also to create drama in her life. The lover tells her happy friend, who is lucky in love and experiences “no such doubleness,” to be wary, for that
“women’s love is but a blast/And turneth like the wind.” In this song, Talma
selects a text that, given to female voices, follows Talma’s own path from her
times as Boulanger’s possible happy lover to the resigned, hurt, and careful lover.
Rather than addressing the beloved directly, “A Careful Lover” explores the idea
of discussing the failed romance with a third party. However, the careful lover
deems the happy lover naïve and deluded in the ways of women’s love, and insists
on their faithlessness. Talma’s setting of the poem as a sung conversation between
women could be read as a means of warning women new to Boulanger’s orbit
of Boulanger’s habits of playing favorites and preferring to encourage men over
women in composition careers.
Tell me how thy Leman doth?
And thou shalt know of mine.
“My Lady is unkind, perdie!”
Alack, why is she so!
“She loveth an other better than me,
And yet she will say, no.”
I find no such doubleness;
I find women true.
My lady loveth me doubtless,
And will change for no new.
Thou art happy while that doth last,
But I say as I find;
That woman’s love is but a blast,
And turneth like the wind.
But if thou wilt avoid thy harm,
Learn this lesson of me;
At others fires thyself to warm,
And let them warm with thee.
Such folks shall take no harm by love,
That can abide their turn;
But I, alas, can no way prove
In love, but lack, and mourn.
“The Careful Lover” begins with a dotted rhythm in the piano, representing the
light heart of the happy lover. The second soprano and second alto, serving as
the happy lover, call out salutes to “Joly Robin,” but their warm greeting ends
abruptly with the entrance of the first soprano and first alto, who voice the careful,
disappointed lover. At the entrance of the careful lover, the tempo slows from quarter note = 100 to 76, and Talma affects a sudden chromatic shift to distant G# minor.
Where Talma gave the happy lover short phrases with articulated notes, the
careful lover’s text is set in long, slurred sighs of unhappiness. The happy lover
responds in a slurred response, echoing the despair of the careful lover, albeit in
her previous mode. The exchange continues in these contrasting modalities, and
the careful lover has the last say, in which Talma uses some basic text-painting
techniques: the second time the careful lover sings “turneth like the wind,” the
melody is an inversion and transposition of the original statement. The careful
lover, embodied in Talma’s vocal ranges, knows her beloved to be untrue.
These songs constitute a significant document explicating Talma’s relationship
with Boulanger. The consistency of expression between these works and Talma’s
correspondence of the same period indicates that the songs were written with
Boulanger in mind and as a manifesto in which Talma is able to state her desire
for Boulanger and her despair over not being able to successfully court Boulanger.
The repetitive nature of the text Talma selected and the non-developmental
settings of the Three Madrigals speak to what Jennifer Rycenga has described
as the “ability to becloud and erase—through temporality—the lines between
experience and story, between experience and expression.”28 Rycenga suggests
that works by lesbian composers do not just engage in narrative, but also function
in ways involving the temporal, including time and memory. Equating the creation
of such music with lovemaking, which is also both experience and expression,
she writes that narrative, in the traditional sense of musical conflict, struggle,
and domination, or what she calls “the eventual transcendence and obliteration
of time,” can be jettisoned for the sake of lingering, cyclical pleasure.29 While
Talma moves the text and melody from key area to key area, none of the Three
Madrigals follows a conventional common-practice or neo-classical pattern of
progressions. Instead, as my analysis above notes, they recall and recycle key
areas and motifs—suggesting that, again, Straus’s concept of pattern completion
applies—as well as memories. Time is blurred: is Talma addressing the present,
the past, both? She is also placing hope in these works for future development
in her relationship with Boulanger, one in which her lovemaking might move
from the musical to the physical, solidifying Rycenga’s concept that lesbian
compositional process interacts as a whole with the material/tactile, the temporal, the erotic, and the genital.30 Talma hoped to use these works to make progress in
her courting of Boulanger. That the songs were composed for public performance
and consumption indicate that Talma’s desire was both outward and physical—a
pub(l)ic statement, as it were.
18 Louise Talma, Three Madrigals, (New York: J. Fischer and Bros., 1930).
19 Olin Downes, “Music: Adesi Chorus in Spirited Concert,” New York Times, April
16, 1930 (Madrigals); and “Women Composers Heard,” New York Times, December 17,
1929 (“La Belle Dame Sans Merci”); and Ammer, Unsung, 158.
20 Julia Watson, “Unspeakable Differences: The Politics of Gender in Lesbian and
Heterosexual Women’s Autobiographies,” in Sidonie Smith, ed., De/colonizing the Subject:
The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1992), 130.
21 Ibid., 140.
22 Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men, 68–9.
23 Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, 77.
24 Thomas Wyatt, “The Appeal,” The Oxford Book of English Verse, accessed February
7, 2013, www.bartleby.com/101/35.html.
25 Thomas Wyatt, “A Revocation,” The Oxford Book of English Verse, www.bartleby.
com/101/36.html. Accessed February 7, 2013.
26 Léonie Rosenstiel, Nadia Boulanger: A Life in Music (New York: W.W. Norton,
1998), 311, 357, 383; Jérôme Spycket, Nadia Boulanger (Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon
Press, 1992), 79; Virgil Thomson to Aaron Copland, November 26, 1931, John Kirkpatrick
Collection, Gilmore Music Library, Yale University.
27 Thomas Wyatt, “The Careful Lover Complaineth, and the Happy Lover
Counselleth,” The Poetical Works, www.bartleby.com/255/92.html. Accessed February 7,
28 Jennifer Rycenga, “Lesbian Compositional Process: One Lover-Composer’s
Perspective,” in Philip Brett, ed., Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology
(New York: Routledge, 1994), 284.
29 Ibid., 283.
30 Ibid., 281.