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Easley Blackwood, Jr.  1933-2023

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Easley Blackwood, Jr., a composer and pianist of remarkable accomplishment, died on January 22 at the age of 89. This word comes from the University of Chicago Music Department, where he taught for 39 years. Non-musicians today remember his father, Easley Blackwood, who developed the Blackwood Convention in bridge playing. Easley Jr., a graduate of Yale (‘53 and ‘54), was known early in his career as one of the most brilliant students ever of Nadia Boulanger; He studied with Messiaen, too, and on his return to America, he quickly made a national impact with his Symphony no. 1, a Koussevitzky Foundation commission, premiered and recorded by the Boston Symphony in 1958. (Reprinted on Cédille CDR 90000 016.) In the 1970s Blackwood was widely known as a superb pianist, specializing in twentieth-century music. One well-known recital program consisted of Ives’s “Concord” Sonata and Boulez’s Sonata no. 2, both played from memory, and at other times he played Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern (I heard a rumor, which I confidently believe still, that Blackwood learned the piano part of Pierrot Lunaire by ear from Steuermann’s recording before studying the score).

In those same years, up through the 1990s, Blackwood composed an abundance of piano and chamber music, and several more symphonies, mostly in a 19th-century chromatic and thoroughly tonal idiom; I remember harmonically exploratory piano pieces clearly with Chopin and Brahms in the background but with an unmistakably modern American color that is quite original. (Cédille CDR 90000 038; beautifully played by the composer.) His Cello Sonata (1985) includes Blackwood’s program note: “…in an idiom best described as ultra-conservative. Indeed, I have tried to approach, as nearly as possible, the style that I think Schubert would have discovered if he had lived until 1845.” Eccentric this may be, but well worth taking at face value (Cédille 90000 008). At another point in his career, Blackwood studied microtones and tonal tuning systems, and wrote a book about them (The Structure of Recognizable Diatonic Tunings, 1986).

Blackwood’s First Symphony, mentioned above, still strikes me (60 years after I first heard it live) as not only a striking achievement but a profoundly moving, really beautiful piece of music, one that I hope will be revived by the Boston Symphony and elsewhere. It shows an eclectic blend of Berg’s dense atonality, Hindemith’s heavy chromaticism (Blackwood did study with Hindemith at Yale), and a delicate infiltration of Parisian impressionism that seems unlikely but really works. And although relatively classical in form with a marked cyclical thematicity, this symphony is big — 32 minutes long in four movements, with a large orchestra: woodwinds by fours, brass 6-4-3-1, 4 timpani plus a timpano piccolo, the usual percussion plus one pair of antique cymbals, celesta, and a “very large complement” of strings. Only the first movement, Andante maestoso — Non troppo allegro ma con spirito, is really heavy, densely contrapuntal, with wide-ranging melody and several fff climaxes. The second movement, Andante comodo, is lighter, and more clearly tonal, almost to the point of sweetness. The Allegretto grotesco that follows is a conventionally laid-out scherzo but includes a set of mini-variations on a ground bass (I think he remembered Hindemith’s “Turandot” Scherzo from the Symphonic Metamorphosis), and ghostly orchestration. The fourth movement, Andante sostenuto, is long, quiet, and eloquent, very unlike a conventional symphony finale, and is based on a pair of distantly associated but quite tonal chords; one recognizes right away that their first appearance is shamelessly modeled on Act I scene 3 of Wozzeck, at the passage where Marie is “sunk in thought.” This chord pair recurs regularly until the very end of the symphony, when they fade away like the closing of the door at the end of The Planets.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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8 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. That Cedile recording is excellent; still have it ! RIP Mr. Blackwood

    Comment by Mike — January 25, 2023 at 10:30 pm

  2. Blackwood was a much underappreciated composer. His evolution is well worth contemplating: like several others I can think of (Rochberg, Stockhausen, Pärt) he moved from dodecaphony to neo-tonal (in his case with an intermediate stop in microtonalism), a kind of retrograde completion of the arc of the likes of Stravinsky and Copland. His earlier atonal works were, as Mark says, strong and well-built, with clear trajectories. The neo-tonal period, dating from around 1980 to the end, contained some things, like the cello sonata, that I found excessively arch and fussy (fun fact: the recording of the cello sonata had as its B side the sonata by Frank Bridge, so he could title the overall album “Blackwood on Bridge,” which was the title of his father’s newspaper column). However, works like his clarinet sonata (the one for standard clarinet; he also wrote a nice but lesser one for E-flat clarinet, both pieces for the Chicago Symphony’s Bruce John Yeh) and especially his third string quartet, were works of genius that deserve a place in standard rep.

    Comment by Vance Koven — January 26, 2023 at 3:00 pm

  3. I spoke and wrote to him occasionally over about 45 years. We need to find how much of his book on equal temperaments he completed, and publish it. (He said I should review it eventually and send me parts of it.) It’s an exploration of his landmark, influential, but still unsurpassed 12 microtonal etudes, also more than that.

    Comment by Paul Rapoport — January 27, 2023 at 11:14 am

  4. I agree the the third string quartet is wonderful. It’s too bad that it was never published, as far as I can tell.

    Comment by Michael Tsuk — January 30, 2023 at 10:11 am

  5. Blackwood’s Symphony No. 1 was beautifully recorded by RCA with Charles Munch and the BSO. Listen on Youtube.

    Comment by Tom Vendetti — January 31, 2023 at 8:16 am

  6. Is this the same Easley Blackwood who would be well known to duplicate bridge players?(A commonly used bidding convention is named for him).
    So many connections between music and bridge!

    Comment by Lloyd Alterman — February 1, 2023 at 7:33 am

  7. I studied Harmony with Easley Blackwood in the early 80s when he was deeply involved in microtonal music. His party trick was to sit on the floor with his back to the piano – reach up to the keys and play backwards – at length! If you went to see him outside class time, he would treat you to wonderful monologues about whatever music related musings popped into his head. He was a great eccentric and a riveting teacher. I feel very lucky to have been exposed to that extraordinary mind.

    Comment by Mariam Kamish — February 1, 2023 at 11:47 am

  8. @Lloyd Alterman, that was his father, Easley Sr.

    Comment by Vance Koven — February 1, 2023 at 1:27 pm

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