Composer Betsy Jolas Receives French Commander of the Legion of Honor

The 94-year-old composer was honored with one of the highest orders of merit in France 

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(Photo credit: Jacques Demarthon)

Born in Paris in 1926, Betsy Jolas is a dual citizen of the U.S. and France. After graduating from Bennington College, she continued her studies in Paris in 1946 — studying with Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory. Originally a pianist and organist, she also sang in the Dessoff Choirs formed by Paul Boepple to explore medieval and renaissance repertoire, which would later influence her compositional style.

Her compositions garnered many awards such as the American Academy of Arts, the national music Grand Prix, the Maurice Ravel International Prize, and the SACEM Prize for the best creation.

In an interview with The Times, it was reported that Jolas met Igor Stravinsky, sang under Arturo Toscanini, heard Béla Bartók play in person, and sat in on German conductor Bruno Walter's rehearsals.

She knew and sometimes worked alongside “Les Six,” the influential group of French composers in the early 20th century — including Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Louis Durey, and Germaine Tailleferre.

Eventually, she returned to the Paris Conservatory, becoming a professor of composition in 1978. She has also taught at Yale, Harvard, Mills College, and Universities of California at Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

She writes orchestral, chamber, choral, vocal, and solo works. They have been premiered by the Domaine Musical, the concert society established by Pierre Boulez in Paris, which was active from 1954 to 1973. More recently, her works have been performed at the Tanglewood and Royal music festivals, and by artists such as Mady Mesplé, Claude Helfer, Elisabeth Chojnacka, Pierre-Yves Artaud, and by leading ensembles Ensemble Intercontemporain, Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, London Sinfonietta, Boston Symphony Chamber Players, etc.

In the United States, she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in France, she was made Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in 1985, “Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur” in 1997, and named “Personality of the Year” in 1992.

Most recently on the New Year's list, she was promoted by the president of France to the rank of "Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur."