It’s amusing that a quick Google search for [Variable Metre Boris Blacher] yields nearly exclusively results from OCA students’ blogs. Are we the only ones who have written on Variable Metre?
I’m not going to provide an entire biography of Boris Blacher here (an excellent summary can be found in Simon, 2003), but I did discover that he studied architecture before becoming a renowned composer. Probably that is why he developed the Variable Metre, which is made up of “patterns, certainly, but used as expressive building blocks” (Matthew-Walker 2003, p.24).
But first, let’s look at the formal definition of Variable Metre from The Oxford Dictionary of Music:
[a rhythmical process] whereby systematic changes of metre are planned according to mathematical relationships.(Kennedy, Kennedy and Rutherford-Johnson, 2013)
I believe that it is simpler to say that Variable Metre is when a piece of music with a continual shift in time signature based on a numeric pattern. This pattern can have a mathematical relationship, but I don’t believe it is always true. It’s also easier to understand if you look at it:
Numbers below the tempo marker indicate the time signature, while dots indicate incremental changes to the next value.
Although some sources claim he did not invent Variable Metre (Quinn, 2005), he was most likely the one who developed it most.
I must admit that when I initially read the definition of Variable Metre, I was sceptical about whether or not I would enjoy hearing it. I agreed with critics who claimed that this method was more like eye-music than ear-music (Matthew-Walker 2003, p.24). My opinion changed when I heard his Piano Concerto No.2.
After hearing it multiple times and assessing which sections I loved the most and which parts I didn’t believe Variable Metre made a significant difference, I realized that this technique works best when the notes are repeated. In Konzert für Klavier und Orchester, No. 2: I. Allegro, this happens. You’re listening to the same thing over and over, but each time the time changes, a new puzzle piece is added. As if a block is being added to a building to make it more stunning. This enables the creation of anticipation and disruption. I believe these two qualities are appealing to the ear.
In conclusion, I believe it was worthwhile to learn about Variable Metre, but I find it difficult to think of it as anything more than a creative exercise if it is not utilized with repetition.
Simon, J. (2003) ‘Chasing the blahs with Blacher. (On Music)’, The New Leader, 86(2), 34+, available: https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A100544790/ITOF?u=ucca&sid=summon&xid=a718ba22 [accessed 09 Jul 2021].
Kennedy, M., Kennedy, J. and Rutherford-Johnson, T., 2013. The Oxford dictionary of music. 6th ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
Matthew-Walker, R. 2003, Boris Blacher, Musical Opinion Limited, 126, pp. 24.
Quinn, I., 2005. Blacher: Paganini Variations; Ornament; Pianissimo Study; Fantasy: The Record Connoisseur’s Magazine. American Record Guide, 68(5), pp. 79.