The seventh annual Kennedy Center/Friedheim Awards yesterday were an overwhelming vote for romanticism in orchestral music. The movement for a return to straightforward emotional expression, high energy and simple lyricism, which began to develop in the mid-'60s and picked up momentum through the '70s, made a clear sweep of the first three prizes in the prestigious competition.

The $5,000 first prize went to the Symphony No. 2 of Edward Applebaum, an unabashed work of romanticism that the composer has called "above all else, autobiographical" and "deeply personal." It is an appealingly lyrical work, with a strong sense of melodic line, bright contrasting colors and some enchanting moments of sweet simplicity.

At the bottom of the list, $500 honorable-mention awards went to the two works most clearly based on structural concepts and striving for an objective statement: Donald Erb's "Prismatic Variations" and Claude Baker's "The Glass Bead Game."

Between these extremes, a $2,500 second prize went to William Kraft's vigorous, virtuosic Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra and a $1,000 third prize to Marilyn Shrude's "Psalms for David," a series of subtly colored, exotic-sounding and sometimes ecstatic wordless meditations deeply rooted in the poetry of the Old Testament.

Judges for this year's competition were Elliott Galkin of the Peabody Conservatory, conductor Werner Torkanowsky and Thomas Willis, professor of music at Northwestern University. The concert was dedicated to the memory of the late Irving Lowens, who was founder of the Friedheim Awards and music critic of The Washington Star.

The lengthy program often sounded like a return to the 19th century -- not so much in details of melodic contour and harmonic language, which were recognizably modern, but in the deeper motivations of the composers, the imaginative roots of the music. Even the two works least identifiable with Neo-Romanticism show strong traces of the current trend.

Erb's variations are coloristic, using the full resources of a large orchestra and adding, at climactic moments, the sound of bells, water glasses and Coke bottles played by children in the audience. Baker's work, based on the novel of the same name by Hermann Hesse, is an ambitious philosophical statement about the arts in our time. It is also a sort of musical collage, eclectically using styles that range from the baroque to the contemporary avant-garde and freely quoting from the works of other composers. It is not, incidentally, the first work with this title by an American composer. Washington composer Herman Berlinski wrote a "Glass Bead Game," also based on the Hesse novel, which had its premiere in Carnegie Hall in 1975 and has been recorded in Germany.

Besides the triumph of romanticism, this year's Friedheim Awards pointed to the remarkable technical development of American composers in the current generation. Whatever may be said of genius -- a phenomenon that strikes where it will and sometimes exists in the eye of the beholder -- the five finalists all showed first-class training. Technique -- that which can be taught and learned about composing music -- is being conveyed effectively on American campuses. Each piece was well made in its chosen style, and all revealed particularly impressive development in the art of orchestration.

Much of the credit for the music's impact yesterday should go to conductor Robert Fitzpatrick and the Symphony Orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music. The Curtis is a student orchestra, but the students come from a unique musical institution in Philadelphia, one that enrolls only scholarship students admitted purely on the basis of their musical ability and one that produces a high proportion of the world's star performers.

The orchestra performed five complex and technically demanding new works, which it had to learn in only a few weeks, at a level of quality that would put most professional orchestras to shame. Perhaps because of limitations on rehearsal time, new orchestral music is seldom heard in such carefully prepared and lovingly executed performances.

While it played, the orchestra was totally objective in its treatment of the music, but during the announcement of prizes it showed obvious partisanship. The loudest, most prolonged and evidently unanimous applause -- a sort of standing ovation by the orchestra -- went to Claude Baker when he came on stage to pick up his honorable mention and $500. This may mean that his music was the most fun to play, or it may reflect the judgment of an upcoming Post-Neo-Romantic generation; only time will tell.