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3 questions to composer Betsy Jolas

10 July 2023
Betsy Jolas
Betsy Jolas

French-American composer Betsy Jolas (born 1926) was commissioned to write a new work – “Ces belles années” – for the 75th anniversary of the Aix-en-Provence Festival this year. The piece premiered in London in June where it was paired with Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Before the performance, Betsy Jolas found time to answer our 3 questions:

Answers edited for length. For full version, listen to the audio interview.

Q: Can you tell us the story behind “Ces belles années” ?

A: I have to tell you that I thought the piece before last would be my last piece for orchestra. But it seems that people are wondering if I may not disappear at any time and they have to hurry to commission something before I leave [she laughs].

And then came an email from Sir Simon Rattle, with whom I’d worked already. He’d found out that the Aix-en-Provence Festival was celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2023. He said, ‘How about another piece?’ I couldn’t refuse.

I started thinking about it and I realized that I’d attended the very first festival in 1948, and then all the memories came back. I remember it was “Così fan tutte” conducted by Hans Rosbaud, at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché. Then I came back several times, mostly for Mozart operas, but my music was also played. They played my Quatuor II, with coloratura soprano Mady Mesplé, then later I was also invited for other pieces of chamber music.

Finally all these memories came together in my mind. The new piece is a contorted version of ‘Happy Birthday’. I’ve retained the profile of the famous tune without the notes but sometimes you recognize it. Then I tried to evoke my memories of Mozart operas and the idea came that I should have a soprano voice at the end. I call this voice “Messenger Angel”. She comes in to call everybody to celebrate, saying ‘You will also come’. It's in French: ‘Et toi, le tout petit, tu viendras aussi’.

You were Messiaen's student, then his assistant, then his successor at the Paris Conservatory! Can you tell us more?

When I entered the Conservatory, Messiaen was not a professor of composition; he was a professor of analysis. His class was tied to Darius Milhaud’s class – in other words if you followed Milhaud’s class you also had to follow Messiaen’s class, which he was very famous for. The whole world was there, people from everywhere.

When I left the Conservatory, I obtained a First Mention, that is, top marks in analysis. But I didn’t get a very good mark in composition. I was lucky to have immediate commissions for film music and incidental music. That’s a wonderful way to learn to orchestrate. Also, I met musicians. For the first film music I had [performed], I had Jean-Pierre Rampal for the flute, Lily Laskine for the harp, and Serge Collot as a violist. They were all that quality. So my music sounded great! Which had not been the case at the Conservatory, because there, at that time – this is just after the war – they hated modern music. And they played it as badly as possible. Things have changed quite a lot [since then], fortunately.

A little later, I applied for a teaching job at the Conservatory. I called Messiaen, and I told him I wanted to apply. He said, ‘Oh you are just the right person, I’ll vote for you!’ So I [thought] OK, I’m gonna get it. But unfortunately on the day of the vote he wasn’t there.

What happened next was amazing… I went to one of Boulez’ concerts and here was Messiaen attending also. He said, ‘You know, you should’ve been appointed! It’s too bad… I’m so sorry I wasn’t there’. He then said, ‘To be forgiven, will you accept being my substitute when I leave on tour?’ I thought I was dreaming.

For many years, you were responsible for radio programming. What impact did this have on your career?

That was part of my luck. Making programmes for radio was very important for me because I was discovering pieces I didn’t know. I had access to the library. I could choose any record [I wanted]. I learnt to make a concert programme, because one of the things I had to do was to step in when schedulers left for their vacation. I remember some of the programmes being made in the name of a very important conductor, who had been sick. All his friends were required to write the text anonymously. The conductor in question was Désormière, who had conducted a famous piece by Pierre Boulez called “Le Soleil des Eaux”. It was very interesting for me to meet all these people. That’s how I met Boulez!

This interview was conducted by Anna Schauder (Diaphonique), on 14 June 2023, thanks to the coordination by Mario de Sa (LSO).

Music Exchange offer

The world premiere of “Ces belles années,” composed by Betsy Jolas (co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, the Aix-en-Provence Festival and the Cleveland Orchestra), was performed on 15 June 2023 at the Barbican Hall in London by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, with soprano Faustine de Monès. The concert, offered by the BBC, is available in MUS under EURO/2022-2023/PC3/028. The piece will be performed at the Aix-en-Provence Festival on 14 July.

Relevant links and documents


Monica Schütz

Community Manager