Joseph Albert Maurice Blackburn, composer, conductor, sound editor, instrument builder (born 22 May 1914 in Québec City, QC; died 29 March 1988 in Montréal, QC). A composer of great stylistic diversity, Maurice Blackburn wrote music for some 150 films — documentaries, fiction and animation — as well as award-winning symphonies, operas, concertos and solo piano works, many of which have been performed regularly in concert. In a career at the National Film Board spanning nearly 40 years, Blackburn composed scores for some of the key films in the development of Québec cinema, including Jane Marsh’s Alexis Tremblay: Habitant (1943), Gratien Gélinas’ Tit-Coq (1953), Claude Jutra’s À tout prendre (1963), Jean Beaudin’s J.A. Martin, photographe (1977) and Anne Claire Poirier’s Mourir à tue-tête (1979). He was also well known for his long collaboration with animator Norman McLaren, which resulted in such films as La Poulette grise (1947), A Phantasy (1952), Blinkity Blank (1955), and the Oscar-nominated A Chairy Tale (1957) and Pas de deux (1968). He was awarded the Prix Albert-Tessier in 1983.
Early Years and Education
The son of a French Canadian mother and a father of Scottish descent, Blackburn grew up in Québec City’s Saint-Roch neighbourhood. From 1937 to 1939, he attended Laval University, where he studied piano and composition with Jean-Marie Beaudet, organ and improvisation with Henri Gagnon, theory with Robert Talbot, and organ and piano with J.-Arthur Bernier. He also studied privately with Claude Champagne (composition) and Georges-Émile Tanguay (harmony, counterpoint).
In 1938, Blackburn’s orchestral suite Les Petites Rues du vieux Québec won second prize in the Jean Lallemand composition competition. In 1939, he received a scholarship from the Québec government to study in Paris, but due to the Second World War he instead went to the New England Conservatory in Boston (1939–41), where he studied composition and counterpoint with Quincy Porter, and orchestration and conducting with Francis Findlay. In 1940, he attended lectures given by Igor Stravinsky at Harvard University, conducted the Québec Symphony Orchestra in his Fantaisie en mocassins and won the Philip R. Allan prize for his Sonatina for piano.
In 1941, at the request of the NFB, he composed his first film score for Maple Sugar Time. From 1942 to 1948, he composed or arranged the music for some 30 documentaries, including Alexis Tremblay: Habitant (1943) and Science Goes Fishing (1946). With Norman McLaren, he perfected the technique originated by Belgian composer Arthur Hoérée of etching sound and picture directly onto film.
Between 1949 and 1964, Blackburn composed the music for more than 40 documentaries on subjects as varied as immigration (Passport to Canada, 1949), music (Youth and Music, 1956) and arctic exploration (Alexander Mackenzie: The Lord of the North, 1964). His most remarkable work of this period is the music for McLaren’s Blinkity Blank (1955), which received 12 awards, including the Palme d'or for Best Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival. (See also Film Scores.)
In the March 1969 issue of Canadian Composer, Blackburn described this music as semi-improvised: “McLaren and I had discussed a way of recording music without a score, from just a very rough sketch of the score, in which the musicians could choose the notes they wanted — either low, middle or high — but the rhythm was fixed. We recorded many short things — a chorale, fast things — and from that, after I left, McLaren chose what appealed to him and made a film.”
In 1956, Blackburn moved from Ottawa to Montréal when the NFB relocated its head office there. During the 1950s, he also focused on his craft of building string instruments, custom-made to produce specific sounds he wanted to record. For Expo 67, he wrote the music for films presented at several pavilions including those of Québec and the Jeunesses Musicales du Canada (JMC). He was awarded a Canada Council study grant in 1967.
He tried his hand at producing only once, with Ciné-crime (1969), an animated film he also directed using the pinscreen technique. As conductor, he directed his own works and those of other NFB composers; and in 1971, he created a sound design and production workshop at the NFB’s French animation studio. His last work was the music for McLaren’s Narcisse, which premiered at the 1983 Montréal World Film Festival.
Compositions outside the NFB
Blackburn's many symphonic works were performed in concert during his career at the NFB. His symphonic poem, Charpente, was premiered on the CBC by Jean-Marie Beaudet in the 1944 series Canadian Music in Wartime. It was performed again by Beaudet at the 1946 Prague Festival, by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946 and by the Montréal Youth Orchestra in 1948.
With the help of a second Québec government scholarship, Blackburn continued his studies in composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris (1946–48). In 1951, his Ouverture pour un spectacle de marionnettes won first prize for composition on the CBC program Opportunity Knocks. A scholarship from the Royal Society of Canada enabled him to spend a second sojourn in Paris (1954–55). While pursuing his studies in composition, he associated with the Groupe de recherche de musique concrete, directed by Pierre Schaeffer, at the broadcaster Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française. In 1954, he was invited by UNESCO to take part in a convention of film music composers at the Cannes Film Festival.
Blackburn also composed two acclaimed operas — Silent Measures (1956) and Pirouette (1960), with librettos by his wife — which were given more than 100 performances by the JMC during a Canadian tour in 1960–61.
Blackburn’s music, some of which was inspired by folklore, some by contemporary music, was known for being lively and colourful. Many of his works, including Concertino in C for piano and winds (1948), possess some of the characteristics — namely the propulsive rhythm — of early-20th century French music, especially that of Honegger and Poulenc. In his book Musique (Montréal, 1945), Léo-Pol Morin described Blackburn as “imaginative, impulsive, a vibrant and caustic poet, one whose chief concern is to give expression to the responses of his mind through music. A creator of images, he has a gift for colour and design, and the stories he tells are original, vivid, and spontaneous.”
On Blackburn’s 29th birthday in 1943, he married writer and screenwriter Marthe Morisset. Their daughter, Esther Rochon, became an award-winning science-fiction author.
Honours and Legacy
Several of Blackburn’s musical compositions can be found on Music of the NFB: Volume 1, released on vinyl in 1977 and on CD in 2006. He was a member of the Canadian League of Composers and his status as an associate composer is maintained by the Canadian Music Centre.
In 1983, the Québec government awarded him the Prix Albert-Tessier for his life-work. In 1989, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the NFB, a posthumous tribute was given to honour his pioneering work as a film composer. In 2014, organizations such as the Québec Symphony Orchestra, the Petits Chanteurs de Trois-Rivières, the Canadian Music Centre, the Cinquième salle de la Place des Arts, the Ciné Campus Trois-Rivières and the Cinémathèque québécoise held events in Québec City, Trois-Rivières and Montréal to commemorate the centennial of Blackburn’s birth, which coincided with the 75th anniversary of the NFB.
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.
Second Prize (Les Petites Rues du vieux Québec), Jean Lallemand Composition Competition (1938)
First Prize (Sonatina for piano), Philip R. Allen Composition Prize, New England Conservatory of Music (1940)
First Prize, Composition(Ouverture pour un spectacle de marionnettes), Opportunity Knocks (1951)
Prix Albert-Tessier, Government of Québec (1983)
Rose Latulippe, ballet, orchestra (1953). Ms.
La Chasse au corbeau, incidental music, words by Eugène Labiche (1962). Ms.
Hyménée, violins, balalaika, accordion, TV, words by Nicholas Gogol (1965). Ms.
Célimare le bien-aimé, songs, music and words by Maurice Blackburn, TV, original words by Eugène Labiche (1967). Ms.
La Mercière assassinée, (4 episodes), incidental music, TV, words by Anne Hébert (1958). Ms.
Twelve other incidental music mostly recorded by Radio-Canada.
See also Pirouette and Silent Measures. Ms.
In 1985, CAPAC had catalogued 414 titles for long and short films, documentaries or animated films with music written by Maurice Blackburn, either alone (about 200) or with others. Some of these include La Poulette grise (arrangement, 1947), Le Gros Bill (1949), A Phantasy (1948-1952) Ms, Tit-Coq (1953), Blinkity Blank (1955); recorded on CD 4-ACM 37) Ms, Le Festin des morts (1965) Ms, J.A. Martin, photographe (1976), Mourir à tue-tête (1979), Cordelia (1979). Narcisse/Narcissus (1983). Edn Louise Cloutier Publications OVP, 2014.
Les Petites Rues du vieux Québec (1938). Ms.
Fantaisie en mocassins (1940). Edn Louise Cloutier Publications OVP, 2014.
Bal à l'huile, string orchestra (1940).
Ms. Symphonie en un mouvement (1942). Ms.
Charpente; “Canadian Forest” (1944). Edn Louise Cloutier Publications OVP, 2014.
Mazurka (1949). Ms.
Suite from Le Gros Bill (1949). Ms.
Pantomime, string orchestra (ca. 1950). Ms.
Petite Suite (ca. 1950). Ms.
Ouverture pour un spectacle de marionnettes (1951). Ms.
Promenade (1951). Ms.
Suite for strings, string orchestra(1960). Ms. CBC Expo-15 (Hart House Orchestra). Edn Louise Cloutier Publications OVP, 2014.
Soloist With Orchestra
Nocturne, flute, string orchestra (1940 revised 1947). Ms. 78 vinyl Champion Record. WABC N.Y. (1940) and RCI (1947) (Hervé Baillargeon, ﬂute)
Concertino in C, piano, woodwind (1948). Edn CMCentre. RCI 2 (Yvon Barette, piano).
Rigaudon, violin, chamber orchestra (1949). Ms. RCI 1 (Jean-Marie Beaudet, conductor).
Nocturne, flute, string orchestra (ca. 1950). Ms.
Marine, strings, harp (ca. 1950). Ms.
Six Formes musicales/Six Musical Forms; “Six Drawings of Norman McLaren Set to Music,” narration, woodwind quartet, string trio, piano, organ, words by M. Morisset Blackburn (1967). Éd JMC, 1967 (foreword by Andrée Desautels), with disc CD-JMC-7 (Jean-Paul Major, flute; Melvin Berman, oboe; Rafael Masella, clarinet; Rodolfo Masella, bassoon; Calvin Sieb, violin; Leslie Malowany, viola; André Mignault, violoncello; William Stevens, piano; Kenneth Gilbert, organ; Jean Faubert, Yvonne Roy, and J. Houde, narrators; Maurice Blackburn, conductor). Edn Louise Cloutier Publications OVP, 2014.
Valse ivre (1938). Ms.
Cinq Digitales (1939). (No. 2; No. 5) FH, 1955. RCI 397 (Julie Holtzman, piano).
Sonatina for piano (1940). Ms.
Marche funèbre (1941). Ms.
Five pieces for Yvon Barette pianist (1942–49). Ms.
Trois Danses (1949). Ms.
Étude (ca. 1950). Ms.
Marionnettes (ca. 1950). Ms.
Polka (ca. 1950). Ms.
Rose Latulippe, piano (1954). Ms.
Rose Latulippe, piano duet (1954). Ms.
Choir or Voice
“Notre Père” [traditional, arrangement], soprano, alto, tenor, bass (ca. 1949). Ms.
Mass, children’s voices (1949). Ms.
Trois poèmes d'Émile Nelligan, baritone, piano (1949). Edn du NTM (Nouveau Théâtre Musical), 2014.
“La Rose blanche”, [traditional, arrangement], soprano, alto, tenor, bass (1951). Edn Louise Cloutier Publications OVP, 2014.
“Sur la rue Chiffonnier”, [traditional, arrangement], soprano, alto, tenor, bass (1951). Edn Louise Cloutier Publications OVP, 2014.
“Le Cotillon racheté”, [traditional, arrangement], soprano, alto, tenor, bass (1952). Edn Louise Cloutier Publications OVP, 2014.
“Chanson du gars perdu,” baritone, piano, words by Éloi de Grandmont (1953). Published in Plaisirs (Montréal, 1953). Edn du NTM, 2014.
“Mon oncle a bien mal à sa tête,” [traditional, arrangement], soprano, alto, tenor, bass (1954). Ms.
“Garde notre amour,” baritone, piano, words by Éloi de Grandmont (1957). Jacques Labrecque, 1957.
“Ramenez-moi chez moi,” baritone, piano, words by Éloi de Grandmont (1957). Edn Archambault, 1958.
La Belle au bois dormant” (Pirouette), tenor (1960), words by Marthe Morisset. Ms.
“L'Âne de p'tit Jean” [traditional, arrangement], soprano, alto, tenor, bass (1977). Edn Alliance des chorales du Québec, 1977.
Several other songs for voice and piano to poems by Aimé Plamondon, Éloi de Grandmont, Maurice Blackburn, Marthe Morisset and others, including “Soir d'hiver” recorded by D. Mills (Master MA-377), “L’Idiote aux cloches”, “Le Perroquet/The Parrot” by Charles Jordan (T-13744-45) and Bruno Laplante (The National Film Board), 2014.