Maurice Blackburn | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Maurice Blackburn

(Joseph Albert) Maurice Blackburn. Composer, conductor, sound editor for film, string instrument builder, musical adviser, b Quebec City 22 May 1914, d Montreal 29 Mar 1988; lauréat piano (Laval) 1939.

Blackburn, Maurice

(Joseph Albert) Maurice Blackburn. Composer, conductor, sound editor for film, string instrument builder, musical adviser, b Quebec City 22 May 1914, d Montreal 29 Mar 1988; lauréat piano (Laval) 1939. He studied with Jean-Marie Beaudet (piano, composition), Henri Gagnon (organ, improvisation), Robert Talbot (theory), and J.-Arthur Bernier (organ, piano) at Laval University 1937-9, and privately with Claude Champagne (composition) and Georges-Émile Tanguay (harmony, counterpoint) in Montreal. In 1938 his work Les Petites Rues du vieux Québec won second prize in the Jean Lallemand composition competition. Recipient of a scholarship from the Quebec government, he studied 1939-41 at the New England Cons, Boston, with Quincy Porter (composition, counterpoint) and Francis Findlay (orchestration, conducting). His Sonatina for piano earned him the George Allan prize in 1940 and the same year he conducted the Quebec Symphony Orchestra in his Fantaisie en mocassins. Also in 1940 he attended the lectures given by Stravinsky at Harvard U.

In 1941, at the request of the NFB, he composed his first film score, Maple Sugar Time. Blackburn embarked on a long career, 1942-6, 1948-53, and 1955-78, as a composer with the NFB first in Ottawa and then in Montreal.The period from 1942 to 1948 was one of discovery in this new medium. Blackburn composed or harmonized the music for some 30 documentaries, including Habitant (1943) and Science Goes Fishing (1946). With Norman McLaren he perfected the Belgian composer Arthur Hoérée's technique (1932) of etching sound and picture directly onto film; McLaren's first experiments dated from 1933. The years 1949 to 1964 marked the assertiveness of his writing for documentary film. He composed the music for more than 40 documentaries on subjects as varied as urbanism (Planning Canada's National Capital), farmers' trade unionism (Montée), fishing (Les Goélettes), music (Youth and Music), etc. The most remarkable work of this period is the music for the McLaren film Blinkity Blank. This 1955 film received 12 awards, including the Palme d'or at the Cannes International Festival. (See also Film scores.) In the Canadian Composer (March 1969), Blackburn recounted the nature of this music which he described 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 left Ottawa to settle in Montreal when the NFB transferred its Technology Dept there. During the 1950s he mainly exercised his craft of string instrument building. He built a series of custom-made instruments to produce the sounds which he wanted to record. In 1965 he wrote the music for his first fiction film produced by the NFB, Astataion ou Le Festin des morts. At the same time he wrote the film score for À tout prendre. by the producer Claude Jutra. During Montreal's Expo 67 he wrote the music for films presented at several pavillions including those of Quebec and the JMC. He was awarded a Canada Council study grant in 1967.

During the 1960s Blackburn also worked as sound editor, organizing the sound track with musique concrète, notably for Je (1960), Jour après jour (1962) and Percé on the Rocks (1964). In 1971 he created a sound design and production workshop at the French animation studio of the NFB. Until his retirement in 1979, he composed the sound tracks for more than 20 animated films, 11 documentary films, and 4 fiction films. As conductor, he directed his own works and those of other NFB composers.

During Blackburn's career at the NFB, his symphonic works were being performed in concert. His symphonic poem Charpente was premiered on the CBC by Jean-Marie Beaudet in the 1944 series 'Canadian Music in Wartime' and was performed again by Beaudet at the 1946 Prague Festival. The work was repeated in 1946 by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and in 1948 by the Montreal Youth Orchestra.

With the help of a second Quebec government scholarship Blackburn continued his studies in composition 1946-8 with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. 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 1954-5 in Paris, where he associated with the Groupe de recherches de musique concrète directed by Pierre Schaeffer at the RTF while pursuing his studies in composition. He was invited by Unesco to take part in a convention of composers of film music in 1954 at Cannes.

Blackburn's operas Pirouette and Silent Measures were given more than 100 performances 1960-1 by the JMC (YMC).

'The works of Blackburn, such as the Concertino in C for piano and winds (1948), possess some of the characteristics - especially the propulsive rhythm - of French music in the early 20th century (particularly that of Honegger and Poulenc)' (Contemporary Canadian Composers). Léo-Pol Morin described him 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' (Musique, Montreal 1945). Blackburn's last work was the music for the film Narcisse, presented at the 1983 Festival des films du monde in Montreal.

In 1983 the Quebec government awarded him the Albert-Tessier Prize 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. Blackburn was a member of the CLComp and his status as an associate composer is maintained by the Canadian Music Centre.

Selected Compositions

Rose Latulippe, ballet. 1953. Ms

La Chasse au corbeau (E. Labiche), incidental music. 1962. Ms

Hyménée (Gogol), TV. 1965. Vs, balalaika, accordion, piano. Ms

Other incidental music

See also Pirouette and Silent Measures.


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 (arr 1947), Le Gros Bill (1949), Tit-Coq (1953), Blinkity Blank (1955, recorded on CD 4-ACM 37), J.A. Martin, photographe (1976), Mourir à tue-tête (1979), Cordelia (1979) and Narcisse (1983).


Les Petites Rues de vieux Québec. 1938. Ms

Fantaisie en mocassins. 1940. Ms

Symphonie en un mouvement. 1942. Ms

Charpente 'Canadian Forest'. 1944. Ms

Mazurka. 1949. Ms

Suite from Le Gros Bill. 1949. Ms

Bal à l'huile. Ca 1950. Str orch. Ms

Pantomime. Ca 1950. Str orch. Ms

Petite Suite. Ca 1950. Ms

Ouverture pour un spectacle de marionnettes. 1951. Ms

Promenade. 1951. Ms

Suite. 1960. Str orch. Ms. CBC Expo-15 (Hart House O)

Soloist With Orchestra

Concertino in C. 1948. Pf, woodwind. Edn CMCentre. RCI 2 (Barette)

Rigaudon. 1949. Vn, chamber orch. Ms. RCI 1 (J.-M. Beaudet)

Nocturne. Ca 1950. Fl, string orch. Ms


Marine. Ca 1950. Strs, harp. Ms

Six Formes musicales 'Six drawings of Norman McLaren set to music ' (M. Maurisset Blackburn). 1967. Narr, woodwind quartet, string trio, piano, organ. Éd JMC 1967 (foreword by Andrée Desautels), with disc CD-JMC-7 (J.-P. Major, fl, Berman oboe, Rafael Masella clarinet, Rodolfo Masella bassoon, Sieb violin, Malowany viola, André Mignault violoncello, Stevens piano, Gilbert organ, J. Faubert, Y. Roy, and J. Houde narrator, Blackburn conductor)


Cinq Digitales. 1940. FH 1955 (no. 2 and 5). RCI 397 (Holtzman)

Sonatina. 1940. Ms

Trois Danses. 1949. Ms

Étude. Ca 1950. Ms

Marionnettes. Ca 1950. Ms

Polka. Ca 1950. Ms

Valse ivre. Ca 1950. Ms

Choir or Voice

Mass. 1949. Children's voices. Ms

Trois poèmes d'Émile Nelligan. 1949. V, piano. Ms

'Notre Père' (traditional, arr). Ca 1950. SATB. Ms

L'Âne de p'tit Jean' (Blackburn). Ca 1951. SATB. Alliance des chorales du Québec 1977

'Chanson du gars perdu' (É. de Grandmont). 1953. V, piano. Publ in Plaisirs, Montreal 1953

'Mon oncle a bien mal à sa tête' (traditional, arr). 1954. SATB. Ms

'La Rose blanche' (traditional, arr). 1954. SATB. Ms

'Garde notre amour' (É. de Grandmont). 1957. V, piano. Jacques Labrecque 1957

'Ramenez-moi chez moi' (É. de Grandmont). 1957. V, piano. Arch 1958

Several other songs for voice and piano to poems by Aimé Plamondon, Éloi de Grandmont, and others, including 'Soir d'hiver' recorded by D. Mills (Master MA-377)

Further Reading