Betsy Jolas

Composer Betsy Jolas is one of the most important forces in contemporary music in France.  Born in Paris in 1926, she is the daughter of translator Maria Jolas and poet and journalist Eugène Jolas, founder of the well known literary magazine "transition", in which the "Finnegans Wake" of James Joyce was published under the heading "work in progress". She came to the U.S. in 1940, completed her general schooling, then started studying composition with Paul Boepple, piano with Helen Schnabel and organ with Carl Weinrich. After graduating from Bennington College (where she became acquainted with 16th century polyphonists including Lassus and Palestrina), she returned to Paris in 1946 to continue her studies with Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique of Paris.

From 1971 to 1974 Betsy Jolas replaced Olivier Messiaen at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique of Paris and was appointed to the faculty in 1975. She has also taught at Tanglewood, Dartington International Summer School, Yale, Harvard, Mills College (as a holder of the Darius Milhaud Chair), Berkeley, USC and San Diego University.

Betsy Jolas first heard Webern's Fí¼nf Stí¼cke, Op.10 in the early 1950s, a discovery which struck her like ‘a lightning bolt’, and soon, despite Milhaud's misgivings, she was getting to know the music of avant-garde contemporaries such as Boulez and Stockhausen. With their rigorously contrapuntal conception of musical form and their enthusiasm for unusual timbres and previously unexplored means of sound-production, from voices and instruments alike, these composers provided a source for much that was to become characteristic of Jolas's own emerging style. But there were important differences in her outlook, not least her passion for the voice and its expressive qualities. The confrontation of this essentially lyrical impulse with vocal writing, which embraces the full gamut of avant-garde fragmentation, timbral experimentation, and virtuosity gives her vocal works a special intensity. In her Plupart du temps II (1989) she creates a dialogue of voice, tenor saxophone, and violoncello in which, in her words, “The instruments are made to do what the voice does in daily life, but whereby the instruments are stylized, laughing, weeping, calling out.”