Betsy Jolas

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Betsy Jolas in 2006

Betsy Jolas (born 5 August 1926) is a Franco-American composer. Her parents are the American writer Eugene Jolas and the translator Maria McDonald.


Betsy Jolas was born in Paris in 1926. Her mother, the American translator Maria Jolas, was a singer. Her father, the poet and journalist Eugene Jolas founded and edited the magazine transition,[1] which featured over ten years most of the great names of the interwar period. Notably James Joyce, whose Finnegans Wake came out in serial form under the heading "work in progress".

Her family settled in the United States in late 1940. While completing her general studies in New York, then specializing in music at Bennington College, she joined the Dessoff Choirs, thus discovering notably Renaissance music which was to have a lasting influence on her work.[2]

Having returned to Paris in 1946, Betsy Jolas resumed her studies at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de musique, notably with Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen. From 1971 to 1974 she served as Olivier Messiaen's assistant at the Conservatoire and was appointed herself to the faculty in 1975. She has since then also taught in the United States, at Yale, Harvard, Mills College (D. Milhaud chair), the University of California campuses at Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Diego, and at Tanglewood and the University of Michigan.[3]

Betsy Jolas is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1983) and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1995).[4]

After graduating from Bennington College, Jolas returned to Paris in 1946 to continue her studies with Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique of Paris.[5]

Her numerous works* (she has been composing steadily since 1945) are written for a great variety of combinations and have been widely performed throughout the world by first class artists such as Kent Nagano, Anssi Karttünen, Claude Delangle, William Christie, Häkan Hardenberger, Antoine Tamestit, Sir Simon Rattle.... and leading ensembles and orchestras among which : the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Orchestre de Paris, the Boston Symphony Chamber players, the BBC symphony…


Through her family background, Betsy Jolas was confronted at an early age with words and the singing voice and this may have protected her from some musical excesses of the after-war. An early follower of Pierre Boulez's Domaine Musical in the 1960's, she was always more a « fellow-traveler » than an unconditional disciple. Her music clearly sounds contemporary, if only for being consistently atonal. Yet, unlike most composers of her generation, Betsy Jolas never encouraged a break with the past and her keen knowledge of tradition has often been felt as secretly backing her creative drive. She has indeed openly admitted many times her ambition to write expressive and beautiful music when such considerations were deemed outdated.


  • Officier de la Légion d'honneur (2006)
  • Prix de l'Académie Charles Cros pour l'ensemble de son œuvre (2015)
  • Officier de l'Ordre du Mérite (2003)
  • Berlin Prize (2000)
  • Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres (1985)
  • Prix International Maurice Ravel (1992)
  • Grand prix de la SACEM(1982)
  • Grand Prix de la Ville de Paris (1981)
  • Prix National de la Musique (1974)
  • Koussevitzky Prize (1974)
  • Copley Foundation award (1954)


  1. ^ Maria Jolas, 94, A translator and Paris Magazine Founder, Edwin McDowell, 7 March 1987, New York Times, Retrieved 2 August 2016
  2. ^ Jeremy Thurlow, "Jolas, Betsy," Grove Music Online, accessed 24 July 2017.
  3. ^ "The American Academy in Berlin."
  4. ^ Ibid.
  5. ^ Jeremy Thurlow, "Jolas, Betsy," Grove Music Online, accessed 24 July 2017.


  • CC1 (V. Perlis)
  • D. Henahan: ‘Betsy Jolas Winning Recognition in the USA’, New York Times (30 Aug 1976)
  • J. Briscoe: ‘Betsy Jolas: Plupart du Temps II’, Contemporary Anthology of Music by Women (Bloomington and Indianapolis,1997)
  • V. Perlis: ‘Recordings in Review: Betsy Jolas’, Yale Review (1995), 179–85
  • B. Jolas: Molto espressivo (Paris, 1999) [collected writings]
  • B. Serrou : "Betsy Jolas. D'un opéra de voyage". Préface de Henri Dutilleux, Edition Cig'art, 2001.
  • Kennedy, Michael (2006), The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 985 pages, ISBN 0-19-861459-4
  • Thurlow, Jeremy (2001). "Jolas, Betsy". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • J. Briscoe (2011/2012) "Jolas, Betsy". Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd ed. 2012. Oxford Music Online.

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