Blackwood’s First and Second quartets are products of the same creative period as his most celebrated early modernist masterpiece, his Symphony No. 1 (1955). In the CD booklet, Blackwood describes the quartets as “largely atonal, although not violently dissonant.” He says they “reveal the influence of Bartok, Berg, and Hindemith” (with whom Blackwood studied at Yale). The First Quartet received its premiere at the Berkshire Music Center in 1957 in a performance by the Kroll Quartet. The Second Quartet was premiered at the Library of Congress in 1960 by the Juilliard Quartet. “Blackwood’s [second] quartet is a work of immediate beauty,” the Washington Post’s Paul Hume wrote on Jan. 9, 1960. “One is conscious at every point of the quartet of the [composer’s] ease and personal affiliation with the medium.”
By contrast, the romantically inspired Third Quartet is in “a style reminiscent of the quartets of Franck, Ravel, and Verdi,” Blackwood writes. “The harmonic idiom is essentially tonal.” The piece, written for the Pacifica, was premiered by the ensemble in 1998 at Chicago’s “Music in the Loft” series. The Third Quartet reflects Blackwood’s latter-day interest in “conservative” styles, as heard in his Cello Sonata, Fifth Symphony, and Clarinet Sonata.