Indiana-born composer, pianist, and teacher Easley Blackwood completed his Symphony No. 1 in 1955 while studying with the famed Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Premiered in 1958, the piece received the Koussevitsky Foundation prize. A work in four movements, the symphony is basically Romantic, but its unrelenting chromaticism and dissonance stretch the outer limits of traditional tonality. Abstract in its intent, it may be considered Expressionism cloaked in Romanticism.
The first movement, Andante maestoso-Non troppo allegro ma con spirito, is a study in thematic transformation (a compositional device that alters a given recurring theme by changing tempo, rhythmic duration, harmony, character, etc.). Most of the material used throughout this modified sonata allegro movement finds its origin in the dramatic slow introduction. It is melodically angular yet rhapsodic and highly emotional. After tapering down to a quiet string unison, the mood changes abruptly to an energetic, contrapuntally conceived section that is reminiscent of the music of composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), one of Blackwood's teachers at Yale. There are a number of instances when Blackwood even states some themes in canon. Contrast is provided by a lyrical second theme in the oboe, followed later by an unusually extended solo for the piccolo. In fact, all wind players from the English horn to trumpets and trombones, are amply rewarded with satisfying, yet challenging, solo turns. The interval of a minor third and thematic material heard near the end of this movement figure in very prominently throughout the rest of the symphony.
Woodwinds play a featured role in the second movement, Andante comodo, as unison clarinets and bassoons present the first of two dominant themes. Oboes and English horn continue over pizzicato strings, followed by the flutes and a delicately floating trumpet. The movement is brought to a climax by a soaring string theme that reminds one of the wrenching lyricism of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).
The third movement, Allegretto grotesco, begins in a contrapuntal manner, again, bringing to mind Shostakovich and his sardonic wit. There are even echoes of the biting irony of Gustav Mahler's (1860-1911) scherzos. The final movement, Andante sostenuto, is evocative and somewhat cinematic. An extremely lovely, almost impressionistic ending with shimmering strings brings the work to a close. While this symphony is conservative in that it does not break new ground in compositional terms, it does confirm that Blackwood is a talented and imaginative orchestrator, able to craft a work of impressive vitality and drama.