Symphony No. 1, Op. 3 (1958)

By Kyle Gann

Written for the concert Nadia Boulager: Teacher of the Century, performed on May 13, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Easley Blackwood has been associated with the University of Chicago for over three decades, and is also a phenomenal pianist, known for his performances of Ives’s Concord Sonata, as well as for repertoire by more obscure composers such as Casella and Szymanowski. He studied with Boulanger, and wrote his First Symphony in 1955 while still in Paris, very much under her influence. The Symphony has much that is French about it, notably the recurrence of material from one movement to another: a cyclic tendency found in works by Franck, Saint-Saëns, and other French symphonists. Here, the primary recurring element is a three-note motive C-E flat-D, first heard when the strings enter during the introduction, and found in many of the themes.

The first movement’s slow introduction pounds out, in the brass section, motives from which the movement will grow. Following the initial allegro outburst comes a rather languid oboe solo as second theme; Blackwood oversimplifies when he states that it is in A major, for its reliance on the chromatic opening motives (notably major and minor thirds in forms such as E-G-E flat) obscures the key. The andante comodo is almost impressionistic, its tonality blurred by major-minor thirds up until the sweet B-flat major ending, and its series of wind-instrument solos reminiscent of the slow movement of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. As third movement Blackwood writes an almost conventional scherzo with trio. The outer parts are variations on an angular theme first given by solo clarinet; the trio starts with solo horn and is based on the three-note motive of the first movement, treated canonically. (Of the symphony’s many internal canons, this is the most obvious.) The finale, though referred to by the composer as a variation of the first movement, is much milder. Often alternating between two seventh chords (major and half-diminished), it dies away surprisingly quickly after a low-key climax.

Though not acerbically dissonant by recent standards, Blackwood’s First Symphony is a product of his youthful modernism. By his own admission, his style became considerably more conservative after 1980, to the point that he has sometimes (as in his Cello Sonata) written “postmodernistically” in a deliberate nineteenth-century idiom.