Jolas, Betsy (1926—)

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Jolas, Betsy (1926—)

French-American composer, one of France's best-known. Born Elizabeth Jolas in Paris, France, on August 5, 1926; daughter of Maria Jolas (a publisher, editor, and journalist) and Eugene Jolas (who founded transition, an international literary review, with Maria's help); had one sister, Maria Christina Jolas known as Tina Jolas ; studied at Bennington College with Karl Weinrich and Hélène Schnabel and at the Paris Conservatoire with Darius Milhaud, Olivier Messiaen, and Simone Plé Caussade ; married a French physician, in 1949; three children.

Returned to the United States at the outbreak of World War II (1940); served as editor of Ecouter Aujourd'hui (1955–65); received the French author and composer award (1961); received the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters Award (1973); appointed professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire (1978), replacing Olivier Messiaen; composed numerous orchestral works and made many recordings of these works.

Although she was born in France and has spent much of her composing career in that country, Betsy Jolas is essentially an American artist who was partially educated in the United States. Her mother Maria Jolas was a musician, as well as a publisher and editor, and so it was not surprising that Jolas followed in her footsteps as a vocalist, pianist, organist, and composer. Betsy composed her first important piece of music at Bennington College, a full-fledged mass which was performed there. Returning to France on her 20th birthday, Jolas studied at the Paris Conservatoire and won second prize at the end of the school year in a competition for writing a fugue. Her full-time career as a composer started slowly, however, as for a while her time was taken up by three young children. From 1955 until 1965, she worked for the French radio-television network editing Ecouter Aujourd'hui, a leading musical periodical. In this role, Jolas kept up with all the new musical compositions. During this time, she met Pierre Boulez and asked him to comment on her work, a turning point in her career. A year later, Boulez premiered her composition Quatuor II and within ten years Jolas was recognized as one of France's most important composers. Betsy Jolas' international standing continued to increase outside France and her music has been played frequently worldwide.


Peyser, Joan. "Betsy Jolas and Barbara Kolb : Why Can't a Woman Compose Like a Man?" in The New York Times Biographical Edition. June 1993, pp. 990–993.

Sadie, Stanley, ed. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 20 vols. NY: Macmillan, 1980.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia