The first movement (Moderato) is relaxed, almost pastoral in feeling. Its main theme is heard at the beginning on the clarinet; in both melodic outline and rhythm the phrase of the first bar provides a principal thematic strand, not just for the Moderato, but within the Octet as a whole in which guise it acts as a motto. The contrasting theme is introduced by the horn. A serene coda ends the movement: over quietly strummed pizzicato chords on the cello, the viola, followed by clarinet in imitation, plays an extended melody derived from the second subject: the violins take up the theme in an interweaving of luminous counterpoint.
A Scherzo in the form of a rondo follows (Allegro scherzoso); its reel-like character is one of the few instances where Ferguson's music betrays his Irish ancestry. Overall the mood is playful with episodes interleaved for horn and a puckish duet for clarinet and bassoon. Viola and cello commence the slow movement (Andante) with a cantabile melody, reticent and wistful. In the more animated central section (Più mosso) the clarinet's theme, over tremolo strings, is clearly derived from the motto of the first movement. The music becomes more agitated, builds to a climax, then subsides to allow the cello to re-establish the opening mood. This extends into the coda where the themes of the 'Più mosso' are transformed to a calm tranquillity.
The peace is broken when the finale (Allegro feroce) sweeps in with a forceful idea which is more of a rhythmic figure than a melodic one. It surges along until replaced by a lugubrious melody introduced by viola and cello con colore, played against a syncopated rocking accompaniment from the winds. In the middle of the movement is a long section where, against an omnipresent pedal point between bassoon and horn, the main ideas are developed. Throughout the finale, allusions to the motto become more distinct until towards the end there is an overt recall of the Moderato's principal themes. The coda concludes the process by bringing the work full circle with the triumphant apotheosis of the Octet's original idea.
from notes by Andrew Burn © 1986