Boris Blacher and Variable Metre

Boris Blacher & Variable Metre

Boris Blacher

Boris Blacher was born January 1903 in the Manchurian town of Niuzhuang. He spent his early years in China and the Asian parts of Russia, and in 1919 went to live in Harbin, the capital city of Heilongjiang province in China. In 1922 he finished school, after which he traveled to Berlin to study architecture and mathematics. Two years later, he studied musical composition with Friedrich Koch, a German composer and teacher, supporting himself by arranging popular and film music.

Blacher was affected in the 1930’s due to the Nazi Party’s campaign against what they labelled ‘Entartete Kunst’; degenerate art. This label was applied to the work of any composer where the content of the music or the composer’s own views were contrary to those of the Nazi Party. Several composers were exiled, some even sent to concentration camps where they died from disease or the gas chambers. Blacher was forced into internal exile, and lost his post as teacher at Dresden Conservatory. After the war, Blacher resumed his career, and later became professor then director of the Music Academy of Berlin.

Blacher’s musical output was prolific, composing works for orchestra, opera, ballet, choral works, and even music for electronic instruments, and for jazz ensembles.

Variable Metre

Blacher’s 1950 collection of short pieces for piano titled Ornaments introduced a technique he termed ‘variable metres’. It is a system influenced by Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method of composition. In twelve-tone, the twelve notes of the chromatic scale are arranged into a tone row, with each note played but not repeated (except the current one) until the row has been completed. Blacher applied this tone row principle to metre, where the number of beats per bar are changed according to the predetermined order.

In the above opening extract from the first in the collection, you can see under the tempo direction the metre direction for the performer. The first bar has two beat per bar, the next three, up until nine beats per bar where the ‘row’ goes back to eight beats, then seven etc. This system replaces the traditional time signature, which is notably absent from the score. Accents and marcato, along with the beaming of the quavers assist the performer in the correct shaping and emphasis of the melody.

This score to Blacher’s Piano Concerto No.2 shows a different approach to notating the method. Here there is a time signature in place, of 12 quaver beats per bar. Each bar features a large number between the staves which shows the current number of beats (the large 8 in bar two). In this piece, Blacher takes a 12 – 8, 12 – 8 – 7, 12 – 8 – 7 – 6 etc. approach.  


I have researched and written an essay on serialism for another OCA music course, and although I found the concept interesting, I didn’t particularly like listening to the music. I expected a similar reaction when listening to Boris Blacher’s music that utilises variable metre. I am pleasantly surprised to find that I have enjoyed the little of Blacher’s music I have experienced so far, particularly the first piece in Ornaments; so much so in fact that I plan to learn to play it myself. I have listened to other music that has changes of metre, such as many Stravinsky works, and unexpectedly a piece for piano by Clint Eastwood that was used as the main theme in the film Changeling, that he directed. Even though that music does change time signature, it is not as frequent as Blacher’s variable metre which is literally every bar. This constantly changing metre provides an invigorating experience that I hope to use to some degree in my own compositions, and likely in my upcoming percussion assignment.