Biography: Betsy Jolas

(b Paris, 5 Aug 1926). French composer. She was brought up in an artistic and literary milieu, and remembers in her childhood visits from writers such as Joyce, Stein and Hemingway, who were all published in the literary journal Transition that her parents founded and edited (1937–47). After the family moved from Paris to New York in 1940 she studied at the Lycée Français and then at Bennington College (1945–6), where in addition to her formal lessons she gained a thorough acquaintance with the 16th-century polyphonists, especially Lassus, through singing and playing with the Dessoff choir. Returning to France in 1948, she married Gabriel Illouz the following year; they had three children. Meanwhile Jolas continued her studies at the Paris Conservatoire, where her teachers included Messiaen and Milhaud. She first heard Webern’s Fünf Stücke 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’ 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, as in the deliberate exploitation of the confusions and complexities of contrapuntal text-setting in Mots (1963), or the later Sonate à 12 (1970), a tour-de-force of vocal invention and wordless drama. In Quatuor II, for soprano and string trio (1964), the textless voice sometimes opposes the strings, sometimes combines with them in more homogenous textures, but is always treated as fully equal to the other three parts in flexibility and sophistication, pursuing a kaleidoscopic and restless stream of invention. The work was commissioned and first performed by the Domaine Musical, and marked a breakthrough in public recognition for Jolas. D’un opéra de voyage (1967) brings about a complementary transformation, as the instrumental parts are treated like voices. This urge to celebrate the dramatic and expressive qualities of individual musical lines, whether instrumental or vocal, suggests parallels with the music of Berio.

Another distinctive feature of Jolas’ music which crystallized during the 1960s was her approach to rhythm and metre. Taking her inspiration from both Debussy and Lassus, she ‘unlearnt’ the traditional musical demarcation of time into strong and regular beats. J.D.E. (1966) presents one of the first in a long line of inventive and economical solutions to the problem of writing polyphonic music which loosens the ties of conventional rhythmic coordination, without sacrificing the contrapuntal relation of the parts by allowing freely unsynchronized playing. Placing notes within a given duration, rather than ‘on’ the beat, and smoothly but continually altering the tempo of the underlying beats, are two of the means used to create the undulating flow characteristic of Jolas’ music. This fluidity is also apparent in her melodic contours, which frequently involve portamento and glissando, and in the textures and larger formal sections of a work, which are often seamlessly transformed one into another.

Together with her delight in blurring the distinction between voices and instruments, these preoccupations have remained characteristic of Jolas’ music. While continuing to compose for non-standard ensembles (as in D’un opéra de poupée and Points d’or, both 1982), she began in the 1970s to write for full orchestra, often with a solo instrument. Several of these concerto-style pieces are cast in the form of a wordless song-cycle, beginning with the lyrical 11 Lieder for trumpet and orchestra (1977). At the same time she began to make use of the traditional ensembles of chamber music, beginning with the string quartet in Quatuor III (1973), an especially concentrated work cast as a succession of short études each exploring a specific kind of musical material or relationship between the four parts. Given her view of music as ‘sung’ melodic expression, it was inevitable that this reconsideration of the ensembles and institutions of the past would culminate in an opera. Two chamber operas seek in different ways to recreate the immediacy of popular (and ancient) theatrical forms: in the second of these, Le Cyclope (1986), which sets a satyr-play by Euripides word for word (in French), she succeeds in creating a particularly fluid, conversational kind of word-setting. The piece was written as a respite from work on her grand opera Schliemann (1983–93), an epic work on the theme of a lifelong quest which includes much play with different languages and musical cultures. While working on the score Jolas studied some of the operas she most admires, from Don Giovanni to Wozzeck, and occasionally acknowledged her debt in the music: she has no desire to reject the past, and feels able to take inspiration from earlier composers without compromising the integrity of her own, fully contemporary language. Thus she has described the organ piece Musique de jour (1976) as ‘a sort of four-voice fugue’ and ‘a homage to Monteverdi and Bach’, yet these models have been wholly absorbed into the work’s own highly individual means of expression.

Since 1953, Jolas has accrued a host of prestigious awards and honours. She has also had a distinguished career as a teacher, much in demand as visiting professor in numerous American universities, and assisting and then succeeding Messiaen as professor of analysis (1975) and professor of composition (1978) at the Paris Conservatoire.


CC1 (V. Perlis)

B. Jolas: ‘Il fallait voter sériel même si…’, Preuves, no.178 (1965), 40–42

M.J. Chauvin: ‘Entretien avec Betsy Jolas’, Courrier musical de France, no.27 (1969), 163–73

B. Jolas: ‘Voix et musique’, Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie, lxvi/2 (1972) [entire issue]

I. Krastewa: ‘Betsy Jolas’, SMz, cxiv (1974), 342–9

D. Henahan: ‘Betsy Jolas Winning Recognition in the USA’, New York Times (30 Aug 1976)

J.W. LePage: ‘Betsy Jolas’, Women Composers, Conductors, and Musicians of the Twentieth Century, i (Metuchen, NJ, 1981), 103–15

B. Massin: ‘Betsy Jolas: Roland de Lassus me fascine’, Panorama-musiques, no.41 (1981) [interview]

‘Voir la musique’, L’âne, no.10 (1983) [interview]

J.-P. Derrien, ed.: 20ème siècle: images de la musique française (Paris, 1985), 143–5 [interview]

V. Perlis: ‘Recordings in Review: Betsy Jolas’, Yale Review (1995), 179–85

B. Jolas: Molto espressivo (Paris, 1999) [collected writings]

Betsy Jolas Web Site:

Traducción: Marcos Payo humet

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