“I am aware of being one of the last survivors of the generation of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen”


Betsy Jolas, in Paris, November 22, 2006.

Born in 1926, like György Kurtag, her senior by a few months, Betsy Jolas is a major figure in contemporary music. Unlike her Hungarian counterpart, the Franco-American composer is still very active. After having benefited, on November 30, from a creation by the Orchester de Paris, it is headlining the festival Les Volques, in Nîmes (Gard), from December 7 to 11, during which more than about twenty of his works.

What meaning does the panoramic programming of your music have for you?

When I think I graduated from the Conservatory with a 2e composition accessit, I tell myself today that I have become a composer, despite everything!

Yes, but you entered the Conservatory quite late…

In effect ! When I returned to France in 1946, after six years of war in the United States, I had a Bachelor of Arts (bac+3) in my pocket and I thought I had finished my studies. So I was planning on getting into the business. Also, when the organist André Marchal, to whom I then showed my music, advised me to do harmony and counterpoint, I was surprised because I had already done a lot of them. The first years at the Conservatoire were not easy. I had a lot of trouble getting used to the musical education practiced in France.

Especially since you had grown up in an environment that was not very doctrinaire…

Certainly ! But I quickly understood the importance that the music “to invent” would have for me. When I mentioned it to my mother, she immediately replied: “Okay, but you’ll have to make a living!” So I started to work in this direction from the United States, telling myself that, since there were practically no women in this environment, I would act like a man. At the time, I was already quite opposed to everything related to feminist groups, in particular associations of female composers.

Did your return to France confirm your choice?

Yes and no. On the one hand, I continued to compose, without asking myself too many questions, but, on the other hand, I was in the grip of a certain discouragement. Arriving from America, where music had been for me, every day, a moment of joy, I found myself at the Paris Conservatory in an environment that was still very sad. Fortunately, I quickly got along with Darius Milhaud, whose painter son had been taken in by my parents in New York for a time. Attending this master’s class gave me confidence. That’s when I wrote Most of the time Ia set of six melodies for mezzo-soprano and piano, on poems by Pierre Reverdy. Imagine that this great poet then came to my house to listen to them and that after a while he very kindly asked me not to sing anymore but to continue the performance at the piano alone. I understood that it was not because he didn’t like my voice but because he wanted to better appreciate the transposition of his poetry into my music.

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