The 96-year-old Proms composer who has ‘no chance of retiring’

It was the start of World War II, and soon the family moved to the United States, where Jolas remained until 1948, when she returned to Paris. She returns just as Paris becomes the nerve center of post-war musical modernism. The “angry young men” who would dominate the 1950s and 1960s like Boulez and Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis were in Paris to study in the composition class of the great Olivier Messiaen at the Conservatoire. Jolas was among them, but always felt like an outsider, and not just because she was a woman.

“I followed all the big trends in music, I was friends with these people and had my first big break in the Pierre Boulez concert series in Paris,” she says. “But it was hard for me, there was this Cold War vibe that said you had to declare your musical allegiances. I didn’t want to do that. I just borrowed what I needed but, no more I never joined a particular movement because my roots were different, what were those roots exactly?

“The first music that struck me was Renaissance choral music. When I lived in the United States, I sang in a choir that sang the works of the big 16ecomposer of the last century Orlando di Lasso, and I was absolutely struck by this music. But it’s not just that, I’ve always been curious about all kinds of music, that’s why I couldn’t fit into a rigid system to compose it.

In 1978, when she was 52, Jolas became the first female composer to teach at the conservatory when she took over Messiaen’s class. Did she find any barriers to being a teacher and composer, as a woman? “I remember when I started to tell myself that there are no female composers, there are only composers. I had to say that, because there were no other women and it was really, really lonely for many, many years. At the conservatory, female students refused to study with me, they wanted a male teacher. But lately, things have moved very quickly, even if I must say that things have moved faster in Anglo-Saxon countries than here in France. Suddenly people seem to have discovered that women aren’t so bad after all! she laughs.

It seems that, not before time, Betsy Jolas’ moment has finally arrived.


The Betsy Jolas bTunes can be heard at the Prom on September 5. Tickets: 020 7070 4441 bbc.co.uk/proms

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