This post has been a difficult one for me to write. My dear friend Susan Tara Brown Talley died at age 55 on December 8, 2016. Susan and I met at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington where we presented our culminating undergraduate recitals together. She played flute at our wedding a year later. Just three years ago, I attended Susan’s wedding. Her marriage to her lifelong love, Mark Talley, filled her with deep joy. Her death leaves those she loved with a great sense of loss. It has also silenced the voice of an accomplished soprano, flutist, pianist, and musicologist.
Susan studied voice and vocal pedagogy with Ruth Dobson and piano with Margaret Saunders Ott, and performed in choirs with the English early music specialist Andrew Parrott, Roger Wagner, the Oregon Symphony, and the world renowned Estonian State Choir.
After earning her B.A. at Whitworth, Susan completed a Masters in music at Portland State University and a Ph.D. in musicology at Claremont Graduate University. Susan continued her research through post-doctoral fellowships at the Huntington Library, UCLA, and Yale. Among her many teaching and performing posts, Susan taught singing and music history at Fullerton College, maintained a private studio, and worked as church musician in Santa Ana, California. She also worked for a year in Vilnius, Lithuania, teaching “Tin Pan Alley Song: Eastern Europe and America Intersect,” at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre as a Fulbright Scholar.
In 2008, Susan published Singing and the Imagination of Devotion: Vocal Aesthetics in Early English Protestant Culture with Paternoster Press in England. Susan’s book crosses genres. Her frank inclusion of devotional material will appeal to readers inspired by the intense faith of the early modern Christian writers she draws on. Readers looking for rigorous academic research will also find much to enlighten them in Susan’s study of music and religious practices in seventeenth-century England.
A soprano with a clear, ringing voice, Susan had a special affinity for early music. Her work on the aesthetics of the voice in seventeenth-century England reveals a wealth of material in the archives supporting her assertion that singing served as an important devotional practice for early modern English Protestants, both Puritan and Anglican.
The daily and weekly practices of the pious in the seventeenth century included activities such as prayer, going to church, and reading the bible, but their interests extended well beyond these practices. Devotional treatises of the period also addressed areas that we don’t think of as specifically religious in our own highly compartmentalized lives: the study of subjects such as ancient history, politics, the natural sciences, and what might now be considered psychology were also considered part of religious life and thought. These early moderns drew on ancient Platonic and Pythagorean concepts of celestial harmony to argue for the importance of singing for all Christians. Singing at church, in the home with family and friends, and as private meditation figured prominently as a means of cultivating a rich inner life.
So my New Year’s resolution, in honor of Susan and the beautiful and gracious person she was, is to sing something every day. I am grateful to be alive, to be pursuing interesting work, and to be making music. In Susan’s chapter on “Sacred Sensualitie” (p. 115), there is a quote from Bishop Joseph Hall’s Occasional Meditations (1633): “What a shame is it for me, that see before me so liberal provisions of my God and find myself set warm under my own roof, yet am ready to droop under a distrustful and unthankful dullness!” Indeed, let us not droop!
Susan’s life and writing evokes the richness of the world in which we live, a world that can be celebrated and created through song. Imitating the early modern devotional writers she studied, we can notice, “like a heavenly alchemist,” that there is something of God in “a Spider…or Toad…or the Heavens, Sun, Moon and Stars” (Edmund Calamy, The Art of Divine Meditation, 1680). When I think of Susan’s passing at Christmastide, I think of that ancient church chant, Hodie Christus Natus Est (Today Christ is Born). Singing Hodie – cherishing Today, this all-too-fleeting day – reminds me of her and of the great wonder it is to be alive and singing.