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Betsy Jolas in 2006

Betsy Jolas (born 5 August 1926) is a Franco-American composer.


Jolas was born in Paris in 1926. Her mother, the American translator Maria McDonald, was a singer. Her father, the poet and journalist Eugene Jolas, founded and edited the magazine transition, which published over ten years most of the great names of the interwar period.

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.

Having returned to Paris in 1946, 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.

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

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.

Her numerous works (she has been composing steadily since 1945) are written for a great variety of combinations and have been widely performed internationally by artists such as Kent Nagano, Anssi Karttunen, Claude Delangle, William Christie, Håkan Hardenberger, Antoine Tamestit, Nicolas Hodges and Sir Simon Rattle, and leading ensembles and orchestras including: the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.


Through her family background, 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 post-war music world. An early follower of Pierre Boulez's Domaine Musical in the 1960s, 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, Jolas never encouraged a break with the past and her keen knowledge of tradition is often felt to inform her creative drive. She has indeed openly admitted many times her ambition to write expressive and beautiful music when such considerations were deemed outdated.

List of major works

  • For an extended list, see List of compositions by Betsy Jolas.


  • Le Pavillon au Bord de la Rivière (1975), chamber opera in 4 acts
  • Schliemann (1982–83), opera in 3 acts
  • Le Cyclope (1986), chamber opera in 1 act


  • D'un opéra de voyage (1967) for chamber orchestra
  • Quatre Plages (1967) for string orchestra
  • Well Met (1973) for string orchestra
  • Tales of a summer sea (1977) for orchestra
  • Cinq pièces pour Boulogne (1982)
  • B Day (2006) for symphony orchestra
  • A Little Summer Suite (2015)

Solo works with orchestra or ensemble

  • Points D'Aube (1968) for viola and ensemble
  • Musique d'hiver (1971) for organ and small orchestra
  • Trois Rencontres (1973) for solo string trio and symphony orchestra
  • Stances (1978) for piano and orchestra
  • Side Roads (2017) for cello and string orchestra
  • bTunes for Nicolas (2021) for piano and chamber orchestra

Works for large ensemble

  • Figures (1965) for 9 instruments
  • J.D.E. (1966) for 14 musicians
  • D'un opéra de poupée en sept musiques (1982) for 11 instruments
  • Préludes, Fanfares, Interludes, Sonneries (1983) for wind band
  • Sonate à 8 (1998) for cello octet

Chamber music

  • Quartet Nos.1–6 (1956–1997)
  • O Wall (1976) for wind quintet
  • Quatuor VII (Afterthoughts) (2018) for trumpet, violin, viola and cello
  • Episode No.1-9 (1964–1990) for various solo instruments
  • B for Sonata (1973) for piano
  • Musique de jour (1976) for organ
  • Signets, hommage à Maurice Ravel (1987) for piano
  • Femme le soir (2018) for cello and piano


  • Mass (1945) for choir, soloists and orchestra
  • Motet I -IV (1947–2002) for various voices, chorus, orchestra, ensemble
  • Enfantillages (1956) for women's or children's choir in 3 equal voices
  • L'oeil égaré dans les plis de l'obéissance au vent, cantate radiophonique (1961) for soprano, contralto, baritone, mixed choir and orchestra
  • Dans la chaleur vacante, cantate radiophonique (1963) for choir and orchestra
  • Autres enfantillages (2000) for children's or women's choir with clarinet ad libitum


  • Mots (1963) for soprano and ensemble
  • Quartet No.2 (1964) for soprano and string trio
  • Liring Ballade (1980) for baritone and orchestra
  • Sigrancia-Ballade (1995) for baritone and orchestra
  • L' Ascension du Mont Ventoux (2004) for soprano, narrator, flute, clarinet, violin, cello and harp


  • 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)
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