Howard Ferguson (21 October 1908 – 31 October 1999) was an Irish-born composer and musicologist. He composed instrumental, chamber, orchestral and choral works. While his music is not widely known today, his Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 8 and his Five Bagatelles, Op. 9, for piano are still performed. His works represent some of the most important 20th-century music to emerge from Northern Ireland.
Ferguson was born in Belfast and attended Rockport School in Holywood, County Down, where his musical talent was recognized, leading to several school prizes. The pianist Harold Samuel heard him in 1922 and encouraged his parents to allow him to travel to London to become his pupil. Following further studies at Westminster School, Ferguson entered the Royal College of Music in 1924 to study composition with R. O. Morris and Ralph Vaughan Williams. He also studied conducting with Malcolm Sargent and formed a friendship with fellow-student Gerald Finzi.
His early compositions such as his Octet of 1933 (scored for the same forces as Franz Schubert’s octet) met with considerable success.
During World War II, Ferguson helped Myra Hess run the popular, morale-boosting series of concerts at the National Gallery. From 1948 to 1963 he taught at the Royal Academy of Music, his students there including Richard Rodney Bennett and Cornelius Cardew. He regarded Bennett as having an astonishing natural talent, though lacking a personal musical style.
His music has a haunting, searching quality, as if a deeply personal question is being asked, but never answered. In the song cycle Discovery, the surrealistic poetic language of Denton Welch (“What are you in the morning when you wake? A quacking duck, a quacking drake?”) is the ideal spark for Ferguson to express such private questioning in his aphoristic, fleeting settings. Ferguson produced what is probably one of the greatest British solo piano works of the twentieth century, the stormy and passionate Piano Sonata, Op. 8, inspired by the death of a friend. Of his two violin sonatas, the second emerged after a long silence just after World War II; the ferocious energy of its finale has a spirit of escape and liberation, a suppressed voice finally speaking (Ferguson had not had the time to compose during the war due to his other commitments). His miniatures, such as the Four Short Pieces for clarinet and piano and the Three Sketches for flute and piano, have a crystalline intensity, as if hinting at much larger works – Anton Webern was a composer he admired, even if stylistically Ferguson’s own work belongs to the sound world of twentieth century Romanticism. Ferguson was always highly self-critical as a composer: after writing the large choral work The Dream of the Rood in 1958-9, he received a commission to write a string quartet. It was during the composition of this that he felt he was merely repeating his previous work, so he destroyed the sketches and gave up composing, saying that in his relatively few works he had said all he wanted to say. For the next decades he concentrated on musicology. His editions of such repertoire as early keyboard music and the complete piano sonatas of Schubert are outstanding, with a meticulous attention to detail which make them authoritative.
In his later years he lived in a white-painted converted farmhouse in Barton Road in Cambridge, his quiet hospitality legendary. He wrote a cookbook in the 1990s, Entertaining Solo, which commemorates the remarkable welcome he gave to so many friends, as does the memoir mentioned below. In the same decade he also prepared an edition of letters between himself and the composer Gerald Finzi, which is an invaluable source of information on the professional lives of Ferguson and his circle. Late in his life, a friendship with the German singer Reiner Schneider-Waterberg led to his rediscovering a song written in 1958 as part of incidental music for a William Golding play, The Brass Butterfly, and subsequently rearranging it for counter-tenor and piano (originally harp) as “Love and Reason” (1958/1994), a moving postscript to a compositional output whose great characteristic is powerful emotions expressed through superb and strictly controlled craftsmanship.
I was studying with Prof. Frederick Jackson at the Royal Academy of Music in the early 1950’s for my Licentiate (L.R.A.M. Performers) and was glad to meet Howard Ferguson as I was learning some of his piano compositions. I fondly remember getting under my fingers his striking, short Five Bagatelles opus 9 (1944) – played here on YouTube by none other than the legendary Dame Myra Hess – some of which I enjoyed including in my recitals in India, Europe and the States, oftentimes as an encore to the delight of my audiences.
As per Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians on the composer, “His music is distinguished by boldness and freedom of the ideas, by a consistent lyrical impulse. And by an independence of current fashions and conventions.”
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