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Maurice Blackburn

Maurice Blackburn

In 2014, the centennial of the birth of composer and sound designer Maurice Blackburn will provide an opportunity to celebrate the outstanding work of this artist who made his mark in the worlds of symphony, opera and film scoring in Quebec and beyond Canada.

Maurice Blackburn, son of a sales rep, was born in the suburb of Saint-Roch, Quebec, on May 22, 1914. His father was of Scottish descent while his mother was French-Canadian. Blackburn studied composition at Université Laval in Quebec City. In 1938, he received one of the Jean Lallemand prizes for his orchestral suite, Les Petites Rues du Vieux-Québec. In 1939, he obtained a scholarship from the Quebec government to study in Paris. However, due to the war, he ended up going to the New England Conservatory in Boston for two years. In 1940, he attended lectures given by Igor Stravinsky at Harvard University.

In 1941, the NFB gave him his big break: at the request of ethnologist and screenwriter Marius Barbeau, Blackburn composed the score for the film Maple Sugar Time. His talent was recognized by the NFB and Blackburn accepted a permanent position at the Board, leaving Quebec for the NFB studios in Ottawa to work in music and sound montage. In 1943, on his birthday, he married writer and screenwriter Marthe Morissette, a resident of Quebec. Five years later their only daughter, Esther, was born; adding to her family's multiple talents, she became a science fiction writer.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Blackburn won two other scholarships to study in Paris, one from the Quebec government and the other from the Royal Society of Canada. In 1968-1969, the Canada Council for the Arts awarded him funding to complete his film Ciné-crime. He also planned to start Verbération, based on the poetry of writer Anne Hébert. An electroacoustic work completed in 1970, Verbération features the voices of Monique Mercure and Jean Perraud.

Although Blackburn is known more for his work as a film score composer for the NFB (in the three genres of animation, documentary and fiction), the majority of his symphonies and operas were conducted by himself or others for radio and television at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (Radio-Canada). Between 1938 and 1980, he composed more than 70 works including two opera buffa (comic operas). In 1956, the NFB’s headquarters moved to Montreal. Blackburn is the only composer in Quebec and Canada who worked in film right from the start of his career until his retirement, i.e. from 1942 until 1979.

Blackburn was highly sought after by journalists during his lifetime and is considered to be one of Quebec’s, and Canada's, most important film score composers. More than 414 Blackburn titles are listed in SOCAN's repertoire. : titles from Ti-Coq and Mourir à tue-tête to Festin des Morts and À tout prendre—a Claude Jutra production—and most of the films made by producer and screenwriter Anne Claire Poirier at the NFB come to mind.

Various events are being organized in Quebec City, Trois-Rivières and Montreal to celebrate Blackburn’s centennial, which coincides with the 75th anniversary of the NFB. This includes events by the Canadian Music Centre, the CBC, the NFB, the Société québécoise de recherche en musique, the Cinémathèque québécoise in Montreal, the Musée de la civilisation in Quebec City, City Hall in Quebec City, the Orchestre symphonique de Québec, as well as at Ciné Campus in Trois-Rivières. The Petits Chanteurs choir and orchestra in Trois-Rivières has already marked the occasion and the Vocalys choir is getting ready to do so in the fall, as are a number of magazines and newspapers. In 1983, after obtaining several scholarships, winning various competitions and completing his last soundtrack for the animated film Narcissus in cooperation with animator Norman McLaren, Blackburn was awarded the Albert-Tessier prize by the Quebec government. Maurice Blackburn died at Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal hospital on March 29, 1988.

Louise Cloutier (born 22-08-1940) is a guest speaker and musicologist and a native of Drummondville, Quebec. She holds a bachelor's degree in musical education from Université Laval and Université du Québec à Montréal (1970-1973), a master's degree in musicology, film option, from the Sorbonne (1974-1977), and a PhD in Quebec studies from the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. Cloutier has worked as a music educator at all levels, a soloist and an administrator. In the 1970s, she worked on the production of the Maurice Blackburn Filmusique/Filmopera collection. Biographer of composers and filmmakers Arthur Hoérée and Maurice Blackburn, Cloutier has worked for various magazines as a columnist and photography contributor, including Quebec's INFOPÉRA since 2008. She is the coordinator for the 2014 centennial of the birth of composer and sound designer Maurice Blackburn.

  • Alexis Tremblay: Habitant
    1943|37 min

    This short documentary illustrates rural French Canadian life in the early 1940s. The film follows Alexis Tremblay and his family through the busy autumn days as they bring in the harvest and help with bread baking and soap making. Winter sees the children revelling in outdoor sports while the women are busy with their weaving, and, with the coming of spring young and old alike repair to the fields once more to plough the earth in preparation for another season of varied crops. One of the first NFB films to be produced, directed, written and shot by women.

  • Blinkity Blank
    1955|5 min

    This experimental short film by Norman McLaren is a playful exercise in intermittent animation and spasmodic imagery. Playing with the laws relating to persistence of vision and after-image on the retina of the eye, McLaren engraves pictures on blank film creating vivid, percussive effects.

  • Le merle
    1958|4 min

    In this animation film, Norman McLaren imparts unusual activity to an old French-Canadian nonsense song. Simple white cut-outs on pastel backgrounds, many by Evelyn Lambart, provide lively illustrations. The folksong "Mon Merle" is sung in French by the Trio Lyrique of Montreal.

  • Alexander Mackenzie: The Lord of the North
    1964|27 min

    Filmed on the great Mackenzie River, this short fiction film recreates the amazing voyage of the man who gave his name to it. Following the path outlined in Mackenzie's journal, the film depicts his arduous journey by canoe all the way to the salt water of the Arctic Ocean - one of the great epics of northern exploration.

  • Notes on a Triangle
    1966|4 min

    In this short animation film the triangle achieves the distinction of principal dancer in a geometric ballet. The triangle is shown splitting into some three hundred transformations, dividing and sub-dividing with grace and symmetry to the music of a waltz. The film's artist and animator is René Jodoin, whose credits include Dance Squared and several collaborations with Norman McLaren. Film without words.

  • Pas de deux
    1968|13 min

    This short film by Norman McLaren is a cinematic study of the choreography of ballet. A bare, black set with the back-lit figures of dancers Margaret Mercier and Vincent Warren create a dream-like, hypnotic effect. This award-winning film comes complete with the visual effects one expects from this master filmmaker.

  • César's Bark Canoe
    1971|57 min

    This documentary shows how a canoe is built the old way. César Newashish, a 67-year-old Atikamekw of the Manawan Reserve north of Montreal, uses only birchbark, cedar splints, spruce roots and gum. Building a canoe solely from the materials that the forest provides may become a lost art, even among the Indigenous peoples whose traditional craft it is. The film is without commentary but text frames appear on the screen in Cree, French and English.

  • They Called Us "Les Filles du Roy"
    1974|56 min

    Structured as a love letter, this feature film is an impressionistic history of the women of Québec down through the ages: the Indigenous woman, the fille du Roy, the nun, the settler's wife, the soldier's wife, and, finally, today's woman.

  • Balablok
    1972|7 min

    Bretislav Pojar's animated short explores the human phenomenon of resorting to violence over reason. The cubes live happily amongst themselves until one of them encounters a ball. War erupts and they fight until they all become the same again – this time in the form of hexagons. All is right in the world until one of them stumbles upon a triangle… Winner of the 1973 Grand Prix du Festival for Short Film at the International Film Festival in Cannes.

  • The Owl and the Lemming: An Eskimo Legend
    1971|5 min

    Using life-like seal fur puppets, this animated short by Co Hoedeman tells the traditional Inuit tale of the owl and the lemming.