Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Howard Ferguson (1908- )

Octet Op. 4 (1933) for Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn, String Quartet and Double Bass

Ferguson was born in Belfast in 1908. His musical gifts were recognized as a child of 13 and consequently he was given a fine musical education in composition, conducting and piano at Britain’s Royal Academy of Music, as well as with private teachers.

Despite consistently warm receptions to his compositions and the high regard of his musical peers, Ferguson has produced few works. His entire output consists of 19 opus numbers and two works without opus. Though afforded a long life, his composing career spans only 1927 to 1959. In his article on Ferguson in the New Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Michael Hurd wrote, "After completing two extended choral works for the Gloucester meetings of the Three Choirs Festival, Amore Langueo (1956) and The Dream of the Rood (1959), he decided that he had said all he wished to say as a composer and courageously determined to write no more." This sentiment is repeated in the article accompanying the CD recording of the Octet Op. 4, the Violin Sonata Op. l0, and the Five Bagatelles for Piano Op.10 Yes! Ferguson wrote Bagatelles also. His Bagatelles came about during a creative block, when he jokingly said to a composer friend that "if someone would give me some notes," he could get to work. His friend obliged, wrote down six notes and from them the second Bagatelle arose. Four more sets of notes were given and, thus Five Bagatelles. This anecdote, combined with his response to the question of why he had written so few works, in which he quoted Shelley: "Rarely, rarely, comest thou, spirit of delight.", suggests something other than courageous determination in his cessation of musical composition.

Ferguson’s musical activity did not cease. After abandoning composition, he directed his superb craftsmanship, scholarship and performing experience to compiling anthologies of early keyboard music, as well as editing the complete harpsichord works of Henry Purcell, Six Suites of John Blow, and the complete Piano Sonatas of Franz Schubert. He also enjoyed a successful career as recitalist, for broadcasts as well as the concert hall. During the Second World War, he distinguished himself as assistant to Myra Hess in organizing a series of daily wartime concerts at the National Gallery in London. He also taught composition at the Royal Academy of Music from 1948 to 1963.

The article in the Fifth Edition of Groves by J.A. Westrup puts it quite well: "His music is distinguished by boldness and freedom of ideas, by a consistent lyrical impulse and by an independence of current fashions and conventions. The framework of his music is fundamentally diatonic. Though he has profited by 20th Century experiments in harmony, his thought is linked to the classical tradition. His melodic lines are clean and direct and his craftsmanship inspires respect."

Ferguson’s Octet was originally conceived as a clarinet quintet, then enlarged to a septet. It became an octet when his teacher R.O. Morris suggested, "Why don’t you add a second violin part and have done with it?" Ferguson complied, and dedicated the work to Morris. It was another British composer, Sir Arthur Bliss, who arranged for its first performance at the Grotrian Hall in November 1933. It was enthusiastically received, gained Ferguson a publisher and is part of the standard repertoire of such renowned British chamber music ensembles as the Melos Ensemble.

The Octet is made up of four fairly short movements, following classical models. The first movement is a sonata, the opening bars of which provide a motto which emerges in the forthcoming movements. The second movement is a scherzo in rondo pattern, the third slow movement is a lyrical three part piece in which the clarinet plays a theme derived from the opening motto. The finale is also infused with this motto, as well as a reprise of the principal themes of the first movement.

1994-95 Season, Program V, Sunday May 21, 1995

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