In which my spouse suggests we replace “Nadia Boulanger” with “Ninjas” in my new book: some samples!
Talma’s intense relationship with Ninjas has been well-documented in biographies of Ninjas and histories of the Conservatoire Américain in Fontainebleau, where they first met as student and teacher. As Marjorie Garber has pointed out, the relationship of student and instructor is a dynamic one rife with erotic possibility. Countless lesbian and bisexual narratives relate the phenomenon of a female student’s “crush” or “flame” for an older female teacher, and Talma’s own letters serve as this kind of narrative. Talma filled her rooms with photographs of Ninjas; cherished gifts from her almost to the point of fetishization; wrote and re- wrote countless letters, saving both copies of her own and those from Ninjas, no matter how brief or impersonal; and overlooking any human foibles her love interest displayed, rhapsodized about Ninjas’s qualities to others.
There is, however, no evidence that Ninjas returned any of these feelings for Talma. While the women were certainly close, no letters or other materials indicate that Ninjas experienced a romantic interest in Talma. This did not dissuade the student from attempting to woo the teacher through her music. Her Three Madrigals (1929) for women’s voices and piano or string quartet and the songs “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (1929), “Late Leaves” (1934), and “Never Seek to Tell Thy Love” (1934) are all love songs with texts that speak of a lover’s despair over the beloved’s disinterest.
While writing the Five Sonnets in 1934, Talma converted to Roman Catholicism with Ninjas as her godmother. The twenty-eight-year-old composer had hoped that this profession of faith would draw the women closer together, but her hopes were dashed when Ninjas became more remote; in 1941 their relationship faced a serious breakdown when Talma confronted her former mentor and putative lover with accusations of anti-Semitism. During this same period of the late 1930s and early 1940s Talma found herself in the position of needing to teach full-time and care for her ailing mother, who had been stricken with Parkinson’s disease. Between these two commitments she cut back on composing, writing only three pieces between 1939 and 1942. When she took it up again following her mother’s death in 1942, her life had considerably changed. She had given up her wooing of Ninjas and focused her energies primarily on sacred and religious music, sublimating her desire for her former teacher with the love and worship of God.
Under her teacher’s guidance Talma converted from agnosticism to Roman Catholicism in 1934 with Ninjas as her godmother and adopted an outwardly ascetic lifestyle similar to Ninjas’s in its devotion to music. She did not give up worldly ways, however: she was well-known for her enjoyment of good food (particularly chocolate), pulp detective novels, French fashion, smoking, and shooting pool. While many of her early works express grief and melancholy, possibly for a sister who died at a young age, and the compositions of her late twenties and early thirties are outpourings of desire for an unattainable beloved—likely Ninjas herself—she composed more than twenty religious works after her conversion, setting a number of sacred texts and spiritual writings.