Blackwood: Symphonies No. 5 & No. 1

I wrote my Symphony No. 5 in Chica­go, completing it in September, 1990. During the composition period, I was very busy as a pianist playing mostly chamber music (traditional and mod­ern) written for unusual instrumental combinations. I also became very much taken with solo piano works by the less-known modernists of the teens and twenties, Alfredo Casella and Karol Szymanowski in particular. [Black-wood's recording of piano music of those composers can be found on Cedille Records CDR 90000 003.]

The Symphony No. 5 is in three move­ments, and is clearly influenced by the stylistic diversity with which I was involved as a pianist. In fact, I originally conceived the work as the kind of sym­phony Sibelius might have written had he experimented with the modernist techniques that attracted composers like Casella and Szymanowski. The first movement is a conventional sonata form movement beginning in a modal version of B minor, with occa­sional impressionistic interludes where the tonality is not clearly defined.

Quiet minor thirds often accompany the movement's various motives. At times, the thirds are static; at others, they undulate slowly. About a minute in, the first trumpet introduces a five-note, chromatically descending fanfare — a motive that assumes greater signifi­cance as the movement progresses.

The second section is more convention­ally tonal and features an expansive solo by the first horn. In the develop­ment section, dissonant and modal pas­sages alternate, sometimes as chorales, sometimes as extensions of the fanfare motive. The original material returns in the recapitulation with slight varia­tions, although the horn solo is unchanged (except for a transposition from D major to B major). In the coda, the undulating minor thirds return as an accompaniment for the initial theme and the fanfare. The movement concludes with an ironic variation on these two motives played by the Eng­lish horn and bass clarinet.

The second movement begins with a quiet, sustained section, followed by to a more dissonant passage, featuring similar tunes played by the first flute, first trumpet, and first violins. Throughout this exposition, the the­matic elements are melodies accompa­nied by slowly moving contrapuntal textures. Imbedded in the accompani­ments are occasional discreet quotes of the first four notes of the liturgical sequence Dies Irae: F-E-F-D (several of these quotes had worked their way into the counterpoint before I noticed).

The development consists of variations on the solos heard before. First strings and winds alternate in contrasting regis­ters, then strings and brass alternate over a pedal point. In the recapitulation, the first two wind solos return, followed by a transition that leads to the climax of the movement. At this point, there is a surprising return to the original key of the movement (E-flat minor) as the Dies Irae fragment sud­denly becomes the principal melody in the trumpets. The movement con­cludes quietly over an E-flat pedal.

The third movement serves as both a rondo and a scherzo. Although the movement is in B minor, there is no cadence until the thirty-sixth bar. This and the virtual absence of subdomi-nant and dominant harmonies cause the rondo theme to have a slightly unsettled character in spite of its super­ficially jaunty mood. The first couplet (or "B" section of the rondo) is rather more dissonant, especially the passage that consists of rapid figurations in the winds over successions of chromati­cally related triads. After a brief refer­ence to the rondo theme, material from the beginning of the first movement is recalled. Following a dissonant climax and a quieter interlude, the rondo theme recurs with an extended variation.

Much of the remainder of the move­ment continues the alterations of motives heard earlier in diverse varia­tions. The initial theme of the first movement ultimately returns, however, this time on a triumphant note, along with the chromatically descend­ing fanfare motive. After subsiding briefly, the piece closes unexpectedly with a fortissimo B minor triad.

I wrote my Symphony No. 1 in Paris, completing it in December, 1955. At that time I was studying both composi­tion and keyboard reading skills with Nadia Boulanger. Paris in the 1950's was a very stimulating place to be a compo­sition student. Four different orches­tras presented complete seasons, as did two opera companies. The city also boasted numerous chamber music con­certs and solo recitals. During this peri­od, I was active as a pianist, particularly as a Lieder accompanist going on exten­sive tours in France and Germany.

The Symphony No. 1 is a four-move­ment work in which material heard early on often recurs in various trans­formations in later movements. This characteristic seems very French indeed, if one examines the sym­phonies of Chausson, Franck, d'lndy, and Saint-Saens — works which I have found attractive and ingenious since my days at Yale (1950-54). Elements found in the slow introduction give rise to the thematic cells of the body of the first movement. In these cells, however, the original thematic ideas are often transformed in character and presented in variations, some of which are canonic.

Structurally, this movement is in a modified sonata form; for example, the oboe solo that begins in A major clearly states a second theme. There is no true recapitulation, however, for the second theme is not recalled as first presented. The movement closes with a seven-note motive contained within a minor third. This motive, along with its dissonant harmonization, is drawn from the introduction.

The second movement contains two themes more alike in character than those of the first movement. These themes are juxtaposed and changed in register and harmonization in a variety of ways, including one episode in which the initial theme is played in canon. The initial theme ends with the same motive that closes the first move­ment, and the second movement also concludes with this motive.

The third movement is a scherzo and trio in which the recapitulation of the scherzo is followed by a coda. The first statement of the scherzo consists of four versions of the same eighteen-measure tune. This strain is first played alone, then repeated with increasingly intricate accompaniments. The trio is based on the same motive that has closed the previous movements. Here the motive undergoes several varia­tions, including one that is canonic. At the end of the trio section, the two themes — scherzo and trio — are played simultaneously. The return of the scherzo presents the initial theme in a version shortened to seven measures, this time in six increasingly complex variations. The coda, like the trio, is based on the outlined minor third, which again is used to close the movement.

The last movement has a more rhapsodic character than the other three. It is, in large part, a variation on the first move­ment, but with the material trans­formed in character, along with inter­ludes of elements that have not appeared before. Of special note is a recurring progression of two seventh chords (a major seventh followed by a half-diminished seventh) that assumes greater importance as the movement unfolds. Following the movement's sin­gle climax, there is an epilogue based on the motive outlining a minor third that has closed each previous movement. This time, however, the motive is played in combination with the sev­enth-chord progression, which ends the piece by oscillating more and more qui­etly until it finally fades away.

While it is hardly possible for a com­poser to view his works with complete detachment, I cannot help but observe that these two symphonies, written thirty-five years apart, exhibit more than a little similarity (although it is certainly true that No. 5 is more conser­vative than No. 1). Similarities include the recalling of earlier material in later movements, juxtaposition of tonal and dissonant passages, frequent use of sev­enth chords in unconventional progres­sions, and similar traditional formal layouts.

The stylistic path that connects these two works is far from straight, howev­er. When I began composing, in 1946, my style was very modern indeed — to the consternation of my teachers and counselors in Indianapolis. Shortly after 1950, a conservative trend sets in, last­ing about ten years. In the 60's and 70's I evolved toward a more radical mod­ernism. All the works I have written since 1980, by contrast, have been con­servative; some have even been reac­tionary. For example, in a Sonata for Cello and Piano composed in 1986, I consciously attempted to employ a style that would have been idiomatic around 1845 [the Cello Sonata is avail­able on Cedille Records CDR 90000 008]. At present, I feel "at home" in a wide variety of styles, and I doubt that my evolution will be any more con­stant than in the past.

Both symphonies heard on this disc were conceived as abstractions, intend­ed as expressions of musical ideas only. Of course, I do not deny that they cre­ate moods. For example, the slow move­ment of No. 5 certainly has a funereal aspect. But these works are not com­mentaries on social affairs; nor do they contain hidden political messages. They are intended to please listeners who enjoy classical music, and I hope they will be received in this light.

— Easley Blackwood


Easley Blackwood's Symphony No. 5: ©1991 Blackwood Enterprises (ASCAP). Copies of the score may be obtained by sending S30 to Blackwood Enterprises, 5300 South Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois 60615.

Easley Blackwood's Symphony No. 1: ©1987 Elkan-Vogel Inc./Theodore Presser Co. (ASCAP).

About Easley Blackwood

Easley Blackwood's career as a composer has been consistent only in its seeming contradic­tions and strong individuality. A Professor at the University of Chicago since 1958, Black-wood received his musical training from such legendary figures as Olivier Messiaen, Paul Hindemith (at Yale, where Blackwood earned his Bachelor's and Master's degrees in 1953 and 1954), and Nadia Boulanger. The symphonies on this disc represent the two relatively "conservative" periods in Blackwood's output: the 1950's and 1980 to the present. (During the late 40's and most of the 60's and 70's Blackwood devoted his energies to radical, atonal compositions.) Blackwood's more recent return to tonal composition, which has even pro­duced some works set in considerably older musical styles, stems from his research into the tonal properties of microtonal tunings and his decades-long study of traditional harmony.

Of Blackwood's Symphony No. 1, Alfred Frankenstein wrote in High Fidelity, "What capti­vated us about this symphony was its freshness, its vitality, its dramatic, epical qualities, and the sense of a lively, original, uncompromising talent at work." Thirty-five years later, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered his Symphony No. 5, Blackwood wrote, "I hope I have written a work that the orchestra will enjoy playing and that the audi­ence will enjoy hearing." According to the Chicago Sun-Times 's Wynne Delacoma, "He suc­ceeded on both counts. He also succeeded in writing a well-crafted, graceful work . . . the finger prints of Sibelius and other late-Romantic era composers are present in Blackwood's Fifth Symphony, in the music's spacious sweep and serene, unhurried melodies."

Also with Easley Blackwood on Cedille Records

Easley Blackwood and Frank Bridge: Cello Sonatas - CDR 90000 008

"[Blackwood's Sonata] is one hell of an impressive achievment ... I suspect it will win a wide and appreciative audience."


Easley Blackwood plays Ives' "Concord" Sonata, Copland's Piano Sonata — CDR 90000 005

"**** A bull's eye . . . the most coherent reading yet of Ives' sprawling, Transcendentalist sonata."

  • Cincinnati Enquirer

Easley Blackwood plays piano music of Casella and Szymanowski — CDR 90000 003

"Intelligent, sensitive, masterly playing."

High Performance Review