Betsy Jolas is today considered to be the Grande Dame of artistic music; she is in great demand and has numerous appointments in her diary. But the really big breakthrough outside France came relatively late. She notes soberly that people like “old ladies who can walk and stand, who still have control of their minds and who – like me – can also compose”.

When her music began to emerge in post-war modernist concert programmes, primarily in the context of Pierre Boulez’s “Domaine Musical”, her name never had an associated year of birth mentioned with it. Jolas discourages such chivalrous politeness, but during her long and productive composing career, she has remained the only woman in a heavily male-dominated modernism. She is also a stylistically different composer, interested but unaffected by generational colleagues such as Stockhausen, Berio and Boulez.

Betsy Jolas was born to an intellectual Paris family, in which names like Joyce, Varèse and Matisse were frequent visitors. She received her early musical education in the USA, where she was fascinated by music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance era. Her American mother with German ancestry was a singer, and vocals have remained a distinctive feature of Jolas’s music, including in instrumental elements.

At the end of the war, in1945, the family returned to Paris, where Betsy Jolas continued her composition studies for Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen. She never became a serialist or twelve-tone technician, but has constantly developed her very own tonal language. Later this autumn, there will be a world premiere of Betsy Jolas’s newly written cello concert for Anssi Karttunen and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra.

/Camilla Lundberg