If you are an ageing composer whose heart was warmed by the news that Simon Rattle has ‘discovered’ nonagenarian Betsy Jolas, you should probably moderate your enthusiasm. Whilst Rattle knew very little about the composer before trawling YouTube for examples of her work, Jolas is hardly a figure plucked from obscurity.
Jolas was born in Paris in 1926 into a literary and artistic family. Her mother, Maria Jolas, was a translator, her father, Eugène Jolas, a poet and journalist. Their circle of friends and acquaintances included figures such as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Henri Matisse and Edgard Varèse. She studied in the U.S. in the 40s, returning to France in 1948 to continue her studies with Darius Milhaud, Simone Plé-Caussade and Olivier Messiaen at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique. She later worked as Messiaen’s assistant, eventually being appointed to the Conservatoire in 1975.
Jolas’s background was critical in her formation as a composer. It has been argued that her familiarity with words led to a sensitivity in voice setting that ‘protected her from some of the musical excesses of the post-war music world.’ Unlike other composers, she was also less interested in a break with the past, a fact, for example, reflected in her interest in Renaissance music. Of this Jolas herself has remarked ‘My roots are in the entire history of music, not just in contemporary music.’
None of which is to say that Jolas was unaware or uninfluenced by the radical innovations of the postwar avant-garde. After discovering Webern’s Fünf Stüke, op. 10 in the early 1950, she quickly began familiarising herself with the works of Boulez, Stockhausen and others. Her response, however, was tempered by ‘her passion for the voice and its expressive qualities’ as exemplified by such works as Mots (1963), or her breakthrough work Quatuor II, for soprano and string trio (1964), which treats the voice as an equal within the texture:
Jeremy Thurlow identifies another feature of her music, her distinct approach to rhythm and metre. Other composers around this time were experimenting with the blurring of weak and strong beats (Messiaen’s non-retrogradable rhythms or Ligeti’s concept of ‘clocks and clouds’). Jonas took her inspiration from composers such as Lassus and Debussy, the first important example of her approach being J.D.E (1966), ‘which loosens the ties of conventional rhythmic coordination, without sacrificing the contrapuntal relation of the parts by allowing freely unsynchronized playing.’
Subsequent years continued these preoccupations. Though the scope of her work expanded to include orchestral writing, the influence of the voice has never seemed far away, either implied, through the expressivity of the instrumental writing, or by overt reference, as in 11 Lieder for trumpet and chamber orchestra (1977); Frauenleben, 9 Lieder for viola and orchestra (1992); and Lumor, 7 Lieder Spirtuels for saxophone and orchestra (1996). There were also more works that included voice, most notably the operas Le Cyclope (1986) and Schliemann (1987).
Jolas’s impressive collection of awards underlines her status. These include those from the Copley Foundation of Chicago (1954), ORTF (1961), the American Academy of Arts (1973) and the Koussevitsky Fondation (1974); the Grand Prix National de la Musique (1974), Grand Prix de la Ville de Paris (1981) and the Grand Prix de la SACEM (1982). Jolas became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983 and has taught at Yale, Harvard, Mills College, Berkeley, USC and San Diego University.
Before being ‘discovered’ by Simon Rattle, she has also accrued a large number of international performances from groups such as The Boston Symphony Chamber Players, the Concord Quartet, the Domaine Musical, the Percussions de Strasbourg, the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, the London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Intercontemporain and the Philharmonia. She has an extensive discography.
Not undiscovered, then, but perhaps not fully appreciated, especially outside France and the Unites States. In this sense Rattle’s raising of her profile has done us all a service.
For more information on Betsy Jonas:
Grove online (subscription required)
Video interview with Betsy Jonas: www.digitalconcerthall.com/en/interview/22414-8