Betsy Jolas

French Composer (b.1926, Paris)

Betsy Jolas is a Franco-American composer who writes powerfully for the voice in her unique works. Jolas has received numerous awards and distinctions throughout her career, including the Grand Prix national de la musique (1974), the Grand Prix de la Sacem (1982) and the Maurice Ravel International Prize (1992). Her works are performed around the world by leading artists and instrumental ensembles.

Betsy Jolas is the daughter of a translator and a poet and journalist. She was raised in an artistic and literary milieu; great writers, such as James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, often visited their home. Her parents left Paris to settle in New York in 1940. She went to Bennington College, where she studied harmony and counterpoint with Paul Boepple, organ with Carl Weinrich and piano with Hélène Schnabel. Betsy Jolas also joined the "Dessoff Choir" where she was quickly introduced to the music of Roland de Lassus and the polyphonists of the 16th century. In 1948, she returned to Paris where she continued her musical studies at the Conservatoire, under Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen (she went on to replace the latter in 1971).

In the 1950s she discovered Fünf Stücke op.10 by Webern: this was an important turning point in her career as it led her to familiarize with the avant-garde musical universe of composers such as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Jolas was strongly influenced by the work of the latter; she however resisted the temptation to adopt any strict stance on matters such as serialism, a trend that captured the imagination of an entire generation of composers. Betsy Jolas was independent and moved away from the rhythmic norms advocated by her contemporaries by introducing rhythmic fluidity and melodic elements into her music. She was fascinated by counterpoint, unusual timbres, the voice and means of expression. Betsy Jolas was also interested in blurring the lines between the voice and instruments: she began to focus on experimenting with ‘vocality’ in all of her works, even those that were purely instrumental. 

Betsy Jolas sees her work not as a rejection of the musical past but rather as drawing inspiration from it. To her it is a means of adding to contemporary musical dialogue. Betsy Jolas has also worked as a teacher; she taught Musical Analysis at the Paris Conservatoire from 1975 and Composition from 1978. She has also taught at American universities such as Yale, Harvard, Berkeley, USC, San Diego, and Mills College .

Six Landmark Dates in the Life of Betsy Jolas 

1961 Was awarded the ORTF Prize
1974 Won the Grand prix national de la musique
1982 Won the Grand prix de la SACEM
1985 Was made a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres
1995 Was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters
1997 Was made a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur 

Six Key Works by Betsy Jolas 

- Quatuor II (1964)
- J.D.E. (1966)
- Sonate à 12 (1970)
- Musique de jour (1976)
- D’un opéra de poupée (1982)
- Schliemann (1983-93)