Betsy Jolas was born in Paris in 1926 from parents of American and Lorraine (East of France) lineage. Her mother, the translator Maria McDonald Jolas, studied singing in Berlin and continued singing all her life. Her father, the poet and journalist Eugene Jolas, founded and edited from 1927 to 1938 the magazine transition, which featured over this period the greatest names of literature, painting and music, notably James Joyce, whose entire Finnegans Wake came out in serial form under the title “work in progress”.
Her family settled in New York in 1940 and she finished her general schooling at the French Lycée then continued at Bennington College where she earned a B.A. in music in 1946. Meanwhile she sang in the Dessoff choirs which she also accompanied as a pianist and organist, thus discovering, among others, the polyphonic music of the Renaissance which was to have a lasting influence on her own. She returned to Paris in 1946 and resumed studying at the National Paris Conservatory under Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen. From 1956 to 1970, while gradually gaining recognition as a composer, she worked at the French Radio.
She became Messiaen’s assistant at the Conservatory in 1971, then was appointed herself professor of composition and analysis (1978). She has also often taught in the USA, notably at Tanglewood, Yale, Harvard, Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as Mills College (D. Milhaud Chair).
Betsy Jolas has won many awards both in France and abroad. To name only a few : Copley Foundation, American Academy of Arts, Koussevitsky Foundation, Grand Prix National, Prix de la ville de Paris, Prix International M. Ravel, Berlin Prize… She became a member of the American Academy of Arts and letters in 1983, of Arts and Sciences in 1995 and was made Officier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2011.
Thanks to her family background, Betsy Jolas was initiated at an early age to words and the recitation of words and it was through her enthusiasm for the human voice and for singing that she was able later to temper her participation in the post-webernian adventure of the immediate after-war. Thus, although she followed the fortunes of Pierre Boulez’s Domaine Musical in the 60s, she was more a “fellow-traveller” of serialism – of which she never accepted the pointillism – than an unconditional disciple. In fact,quite unlike some younger musicians at the time, she never admitted the possibility of a total break with the past, claiming instead to feel herself very much part of a rich lineage that included, from Josquin to Stravinsky, an impressive list of great and beloved names. While she refused to seek refuge in abstraction, she welcomed the idea that music could still be both beautiful and interesting.
Prix de la Fondation Copley de Chicago, 1954
Prix de l’ORTF, 1961
Prix de l’American Academy of Arts and letters, 1973
Grand prix national de la musique, 1974
Grand prix de la ville de Paris, 1981
Grand prix de la Sacem, 1982
Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, 1985
Prix international Maurice Ravel et « personnalité de l’année » pour la France, 1992
Prix Sacem de la meilleure création de l’année pour Frauenleben, 1994
Membre de l’American Academy of Arts and letters 1983
Membre de l’American Academy of Arts and sciences, 1995
Officier de la Légion d’honneur, 2011