In many ways, Easley Blackwood's Symphony No. 5, a work in three movements, seems to belong to another time. Completed in Chicago in 1990, the piece is far more conservative than his first symphony composed some thirty-five years earlier. In Blackwood's own words, he imagined this work as the type of symphony Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) might have conceived (frequent use of rich, modal harmonies, for instance). While there is limited use of dissonance, the tonality is extremely traditional. Neo-Romantic in style, the piece seems to be a deliberate "throwback" to the sweep and grandeur found in the work of some of the great American symphonists such as Samuel Barber (1910-1981), Aaron Copland (1900-1990), Howard Hanson (1896-1981), and Roy Harris (1898-1979).
The first movement, Allegro inquieto is in sonata form (first theme group, second theme group, development, recap, coda). A furtive, restless mood is established by tremolos in the upper strings and a searching dotted rhythm in the lower strings, answered almost in reverse by the oboes. A transition germinates based on the oboe material, which climaxes in a trumpet "fanfare" with a definite shift to major. The horn presents a lush, almost impressionistic "second theme." The first theme group, heard in fragments throughout the orchestra, is the basis for most of the material in the development section. Near its end, the strings offer a new, tranquil, lyrical theme in triplets followed by a series of chorales in the brass. The recap occurs about four and one-half minutes into the movement. After a lovely passage that is reminiscent of the Largo of Antonín Dvorák's (1841-1904) New World Symphony, the movement ends with a precocious little coda featuring the English horn and bass clarinet. The middle movement, Molto adagio, is this work's center of gravity, structurally and emotionally. At nearly eleven minutes in length, it is almost three minutes longer than the first movement and four minutes longer than the third. At the beginning, we are again close to the nineteenth-century of a Dvorák or Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), with a sustained sentimentality in the strings. But about three minutes in, the tonality and mood start to become edgier, building to a tug of war between an older tradition and the growing unease of more modern aspects. A transformation takes place from sweet naiveté to an almost tragic despair. The third movement, Allegro vivo, is a scherzo that starts with all the sunny mischief of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), echoes of his Italian Symphony. Soon, material from the first movement returns to begin a dramatic change in character, similar to the one in the previous movement: the seemingly genial and good-natured turns darker and sardonic as the piece ends on a very loud minor chord.