Betsy Jolas, a Finely Tuned French-American Life

She learned her scales between Paris, New York City, and Vermont, composed more than 250 pieces played by the world’s greatest orchestras, and spent time with James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and Joan Mitchell. France-Amérique met French-American composer Betsy Jolas, a contemporary music pioneer who, at the age of 97, still creates with the same intensity.
© Jacques Demarthon/AFP/ Getty Images

Speaking over the intercom, Betsy Jolas feigns surprise. “France-Amérique? I believe I read you back in 1943…” As she welcomes us into her house in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, she adds: “Although I imagine you weren’t working there back then!” Sporting silver hair and delicate, metal-framed glasses, the godmother of contemporary music has kept her sharp sense of humor. She invites us into her living room, filled with records and old books, to share the story of her astonishing life.

Last July, the London Symphony Orchestra played her latest composition, Ces belles années (2022). This was one of a long list of tributes that includes an award from the American Academy of Arts in 1973, the Grand Prix from the SACEM artists association in 1982, and the Victoire de la Musique award in the classical music category in 2021 for Topeng, her eighth quartet for strings. The recent surge in interest in female composers has made Betsy Jolas an iconic figure, with invitations on both sides of the Atlantic to contribute to albums including The Future Is Female (2022) and Poétesses symphoniques (2023). So what’s her secret? Without hesitating, she declares: “Hard work!”

The Music of Two Cultures

Elizabeth “Betsy” Jolas was born in 1926 and grew up in an exciting artistic environment, immersed in the cultures of both France (on her father’s side) and America (on her mother’s). As a child, she spent time in the company of Hemingway, Matisse, Edgard Varèse, and Sylvia Beach. They were the “friends of transition,” the multilingual literary magazine founded in 1927 by her father, Eugène Jolas, and translated by her mother, Maria. “In the atmosphere in which I was raised, creativity was essential,” she says. “There was no question of me becoming a banker or an industrialist. I knew that I had to become a painter, a writer, or a poet.”

In the end, she chose music. Sitting up ramrod straight in her velvet armchair, Betsy Jolas hums a melody from her childhood, one of the African American songs her mother would sing all day long. Née McDonald, a descendent of Thomas Jefferson, and raised in Kentucky by Black servants, she handed down her love of Negro spirituals to her daughter. In Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises in the Champagne region, where the family moved in the 1920s, Betsy and her mother were the talk of the town. “We were the Americans who drove a Ford and sang the blues!”

In September 1939, war broke out and the Jolas family’s lives were shattered. Maria was forced to close the French-American school she had opened in Neuilly, just outside Paris, and fled south with her daughters. James Joyce soon joined them, and the Irish novelist would sing with Maria while Betsy accompanied them on the piano to brighten up their evenings. “Il avait une très belle voix, a deep tenor,” she says in perfect Frenglish. A year later, in September 1940, the family managed to escape occupied France to Lisbon, where they boarded the Exochorda for New York City.

Betsy Jolas was 14. She loved music and gymnastics, and didn’t give a damn about Pétain or de Gaulle. On the boat taking her to America, the young girl read The Count of Monte Cristo with a heavy heart. “I felt like I was being torn away from France,” she says. One day, during a storm in the middle of the Atlantic, she was almost washed overboard by a wave – an experience that inspired her first orchestral composition, Tales of a Summer Sea, commissioned in 1977 by the Tanglewood festival in Massachusetts.

Betsy Jolas (in the carriage) with her mother (standing against the door) and her father (playing the violin), in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, ca. 1926. © Yale University Library
Betsy Jolas, 1967. © Jean Marquis/Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris
Maria Jolas surrounded by her children (including Betsy, center, with a white collar) and grandchildren, 1971. © Yale University Library

New York Strikes a Chord

The musician (who wrote her initial pieces, her “musical beginnings,” in her words, at the age of 8) soon joined the choir at the Lycée Français. “They called us les ténorettes because all the tenors had gone off to war.” At the Town Hall, a theater on 43rrd Street, she attended her first concert and discovered Bartók in the flesh. This marked a turning point. “All the European musicians were in New York, and I wanted so desperately to be one of them.” Swept up in the whirlwind of her parents’ social lives, the teenager met Nadia Boulanger in Boston, played the organ for Einstein at Princeton, had dinner with Stravinsky, and spent her weekends with the Calders.

To make Americans aware of the situation in occupied France, Maria Jolas pressed her two daughters into service. The pair took to the Manhattan sidewalks to sell croissants on behalf of France Forever, the Gaullist organization in the United States. “I hated it,” laughs Betsy Jolas. At La Marseillaise, the Free French mess hall and community center her mother opened on Second Avenue, the young girl developed her artistic talents on the piano. With a twinkle in her eye, she adds: “But the sailors I danced with were what interested me the most!”

Betsy Jolas remembers the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and the newspapers announcing that America had joined the war. While on vacation on the shores of Lake Waramaug in Connecticut, she climbed the snow-topped trees and kept watch for Japanese planes. The following summer, with her sister Tina, Betsy put on a play. She composed the music using whatever she could lay her hands on, including a bamboo pipe, an old comb, and a small piano. The neighbors were invited, and the audience included André Breton, André Masson, and the entire exiled French Surrealist community.

In 1944, Betsy Jolas enrolled at Bennington College and learned about harmony and counterpoint. She recalls having “a real American college experience,” along with the biting Vermont winters and having to blow into the frost-covered organ pipes before playing. She set her sights on composing, but was discouraged by what we would now call imposter syndrome. “I wanted to be Bach or Beethoven, or nothing at all,” she says. “That wouldn’t have stopped a boy, but it really set me back.” Everything changed the day a teacher suggested that she write something for his choir: “And that was that; I was a composer!”

Let the Music Play!

After graduating, Betsy Jolas returned to Paris. She missed her native land, and the news of France that reached the United States distressed her. One of her former classmates, a Resistance fighter and fellow musician, had been executed by the Germans. After being away for six years, she remembers, “I couldn’t imagine the state that France would be in when I got back.” In 1946, the young woman began studying at the Paris Conservatoire under Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen, who would become her mentors and, later, her colleagues.

Returning to France was a struggle. The Conservatoire’s academic discipline was ruthless and enormous emphasis was placed on reading music. “The French are intense music theorists,” says Betsy Jolas, who shudders when recalling her deciphering tests and the school’s infamous composition exams. “They are capable of sight-reading at breakneck speed, recognizing the notes of the piece they are listening to without making a single mistake.” Despite the pressure, she persisted and was rewarded with her first commissions, which included cantatas for radio and film scores. She even tried her hand at electronic music with her Schliemann opera (1993). “From Serialism to the clean slate that defined the post-war period, she never chose a side,” explains international violinist Marina Chiche, who wrote a book on history’s great forgotten female musicians. “Her French-American background gave her a healthy dose of quirkiness.”

The composer traveled back across the Atlantic in 1971, first for concerts and then to teach. At Yale, Harvard, and Berkeley, she was surprised to learn that her students had all started playing an instrument in school. “Americans have a very special relationship with music; everyone plays something,” says the woman who spent many years encouraging her French charges to study in the U.S. “As a musician, I feel more at home in the United States than in Paris. It’s a fact: The French are more interested in painting and literature.” Nevertheless, she is delighted by Radio France’s musical line-up and admires Kaija Saariaho, a Finnish composer based in Paris since the 1980s who passed away last June.

Gesturing gracefully like a conductor reaching the final page of their score, Betsy Jolas brings our interview to a close. “I’m the same age as the late queen of England, you know,” she laughs, before taking a more serious tone as we stand at the door: “Those were wonderful years. When I was a child, I always tried to have dreams as beautiful as my father’s. I think I succeeded.”

Article published in the October 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.