Boris Blacher and Variable Metre

(b Niu-chang, China, Jan 19, 1903; b Berlin, Jan 30, 1975). German composer of Baltic descent.

1. Life.

In 1922 he went to Berlin, where he initially studied architecture and mathematics at the wish of his parents. He studied composition with Friedrich Ernst Koch at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik (1924–6) and read music under Schering, Blume and von Hornbostel at Berlin University (1927–31). Thereafter he worked in Berlin as a composer and arranger until his appointment in 1938 as director of a composition class at the Dresden Conservatory, a post he was obliged to relinquish the following year because his teaching was not in accord with Nazi cultural policy. After World War II he returned to his work as a composition teacher, first at the Internationales Musikinstitut in Berlin-Zehlendorf and then, from 1948, as a professor at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, which he directed from 1953 to 1970. He gave lectures and seminars at the summer courses in Bryanston (1949, 1950), at the Salzburg Mozarteum (1950, 1951) and at Tanglewood (1955) and wrote the textbook Einführung in den strengen Satz(Berlin, 1953). Also in 1955 the West Berlin Academy of Arts appointed him a regular member of its music section, the direction of which he assumed in 1961; from 1968 to 1971 he was president of the academy. His composition pupils include Ballif, Burt, von Einem (Blacher had a decisive hand in writing the libretto of Der Prozess), Erbse, Klebe, Reimann and Sheriff. Among the many awards he received were the Bach Prize of Hamburg and the Grosse Kunstpreis of North Rhine-Westphalia.

2. Works.

Blacher’s music is playful in character, with an avoidance of brooding and tragedy. His ideal is a light, transparent texture with delicately traced and coloured ornamental lines; his best works are dominated by brightness of tone and an unobtrusive logic that reveals both agility of mind and a sure sense of formal proportioning. The themes and motifs are terse and often witty and caustic: Blacher’s ideas often give the impression of throwaway instrumental bons mots, but closer examination reveals their careful intervallic shaping. In working his material, particularly from the 1950s onwards, he starts with a single cell, clearly defined in its intervals and rhythm, and subjects it to processes of expansion and contraction. In this way the music achieves a quality of organic growth and decline. There is a connection between his playful approach to construction and the tendency to high spirits always present in his music, though this can equally modulate into irony or attain an Apollonian spirituality.

In general Blacher’s work is based on the poles of dynamism and lyricism, but even his lyricism is more animated than dream-like and characterized by understatement. His allegro-type compositions are dominated by a subtle play of motoric rhythms, pauses and shifts of metrical emphasis, techniques that give his language flexibility and rhythmic variety, two unmistakable attributes of his style. His lyricism aims at immediate communication, favouring the mimetic over the rhetorical, and is determinedly anti-Romantic, recalling Satie’s notion of ‘expression dépouillée’. Blacher’s tendency towards the greatest possible reduction of musical means became increasingly pronounced, and with this the pictorial and ornamental elements in his work took on greater importance, though this tended to rob the linear writing of a sense of direction and necessity. Blacher was influenced relatively little by the Austro-German tradition, but rather by French composers (Satie and Milhaud), Stravinsky (above all in the field of rhythm) and jazz (in melodic construction and musical rhetoric).

Harmonically Blacher’s compositions remained until the late 1940s within the bounds of tonality, extended and defamiliarized by dissonance and polytonality. After 1948 he began to come to terms with the 12-note method, but in this he was attracted more by its possibilities of interval ordering than by its atonal features. Characteristic of Blacher’s approach was his concern from the outset to achieve a correspondence between 12-note serial motivic writing and rhythmic and metrical organization. The result was a development of his earlier practice, in that alternating time signatures which, under Stravinsky’s influence, had become a general principle in Blacher’s work shortly after 1940, were now systematized, their succession being determined by rows that are also subject to retrograde operations. These so called ‘variable metres’, which Blacher introduced in Ornamente for piano (1950), created a great deal of interest at the time and were taken up by other composers, among them Hartmann. But Blacher, by nature anti-orthodox, never used the principle as his sole means of durational organization.

Blacher’s works for the theatre, both operas and ballets, are particularly important. Given the playful quality of his music, its precision and its almost gestural, graphic character, it was perhaps inevitable that Blacher should feel a strong affinity for the dance. The subjects of his stage works (as well as the range of texts he has set) reflect varied intellectual and literary interests. First in the series of major ballets were Hamlet(1949) and Lysistrata (1950), two highly contrasted works. Blacher had been considering a ballet on Hamlet shortly before World War II; at the time it remained unrealised, and Blacher subsequently reworked the existing music into a symphonic poem, composing anew for the 1949 score, whose melodic, rhythmic and harmonic permutations prefigure the move to dodecaphony and variable metres. Lysistrata was his first major 12-note composition. Of the later ballets, Der Mohr von Venedig (after Othello) is particularly noteworthy; it was succeeded by Demeter and Tristan.

The subjects of Blacher’s operas are equally fascinating, and again he turned quite early to Shakespeare for the chamber opera Romeo und Julia (1943). This piece was affected by the material restrictions of war: it requires only a small number of instruments, though its vocal forces are less modest (eight singers, three speakers and a madrigal chorus). Another chamber opera, Die Flut, followed in 1946, this time taking its story, concerning the behaviour of people in extreme situations, from Maupassant. The tendency to social and political criticism that Die Flut revealed was pursued in the ballet-opera Preussisches Märchen (1949), which, based on the celebrated Wilhelmine affair of the Captain of Köpenick, mocks German trust in authority and veneration of uniforms, using a consciously operetta-like manner.

With Rosamunde Floris (1960) the drama moves into surrealist realms from which Blacher’s music stands at a certain distance. Zwischenfälle bei einer Notlandung (1965), which uses electronic means, returns to a portrayal of people under extreme conditions. Zweihunderttausend Taler (1969) combines a fairytale atmosphere with social criticism. All of these and Blacher’s earlier operas have a more or less straightforward plot, and there is an evident predilection for ‘epic music theatre’. But Blacher’s output also includes an epic piece abstracted to the highest degree: the Abstrakte Oper no.1 (1953). Instead of a narrative the work presents basic patterns of human behaviour: love, fear, pain, panic. The text, by Blacher’s friend Werner Egk, consists, in all except one scene, of materials that have no semantic meaning but portray an archetypal emotional situation. In this the piece may be considered a precursor of Ligeti’s much more complex Aventures. Blacher’s constructive methods in the Abstrakte Oper include variable metres, ostinato forms and 12-note series. On the periphery of opera are the Gesänge des Seeräubers O’Rourke und seiner Geliebten Sally Brown, a concert piece with an imaginary scenario. The music has an affinity with jazz, shows pointillist tendencies in its sparseness of texture, and draws on the idiom of Weill. Of Blacher’s other vocal works, the oratorio Der Grossinquisitor (after Dostoyevsky) and the Requiem are the most significant.

It was Blacher’s instrumental works that made his name most widely known. Principal among these is the Concertante Musik for orchestra (1937), a three-part composition that brings together instrumental virtuosity, the transparency of chamber music and a jazz-like impulsiveness in a successful and highly effective manner. But it was the Orchestervariationen über ein Thema von Niccolò Paganini (1947) that established his international reputation. These 16 variations on the famous A minor theme, also used by Brahms, Rakhmaninov, Lutosławski and others, may be seen as a true reflection of his compositional talents, giving a free rein to his orchestral virtuosity and brilliance, and revealing a mastery that can clothe the most complex contrapuntal writing in the guise of ‘faire plaisir’. Other major, large-scale instrumental works include the Orchester-Ornament (1953), in which the technique of variable metres is applied to a large orchestra, the Second Piano Concerto (1952), also in variable metres, and the Variationen über ein Thema von Muzio Clementi for piano and orchestra (1961). The considerable output of chamber compositions was, after 1962, supplemented by a series of pieces that use electronic means to modify instrumental and vocal sounds.