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Ferguson, Howard

(b Belfast, 21 Oct 1908; d Cambridge, 11 Nov 1999). Irish composer, musicologist and pianist. When he was 13, his playing and general musicianship so impressed the pianist Harold Samuel that he offered to take over the boy's musical education. Ferguson's family agreed and sent him to London for a general education at Westminster School followed, in 1925, by a period at the RCM where he studied composition with R.O. Morris and Vaughan Williams, and conducting with Sargent; private piano study with Samuel continued. Ferguson first drew serious attention as a composer with his Violin Sonata no.1, performed in October 1932 at the Wigmore Hall by Menges and Samuel. The favourable impression was soon confirmed by the Octet, first performed at the Grotrian Hall in November 1933, and the Two Ballads for baritone and orchestra, heard at the Three Choirs Festival (Gloucester) in 1935. His composing career continued steadily thereafter, and though his output was modest, each new work made a decisive impression. 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.

Ferguson then turned his attention to musicological work, in particular the editing of keyboard music. His insights as a composer, his practical experience as a recitalist and his impeccable craftsmanship equipped him well for such work. His anthologies of early keyboard music thus combine scholarship with common sense and loving enthusiasm, and they have been welcomed by both amateurs and professionals, as has his book Keyboard Interpretation (London, 1975). Ferguson enjoyed an equally successful career as a recitalist, for broadcasts as well as in the concert hall. His main work in this field was in duet partnerships with Denis Matthews (piano) and Yfrah Neaman (violin) which involved extended tours in many parts of the world. He was assistant to Myra Hess in the organization of the notable and influential series of daily wartime concerts at the National Gallery in London. Ferguson taught composition at the RAM (1948–63) and numbered among his pupils a surprisingly wide variety of distinguished composers. He received an honorary MusD from the Queen's University, Belfast, in 1959.

In his original works Ferguson wrote in a variety of forms, miniature and extended, with equal success. Modest though his output was, it involved very few miscalculations and no outright failures. His style was basically diatonic, combining great lyrical warmth with firmness and clarity of construction. Traditional forms and procedures served his needs and he handled them with a genuine sense of vitality. His harmony is largely Romantic and conservative, although certain works (the song cycle Discovery, for example) explore more astringent ground. His melodies are direct and uncompromisingly Romantic, and though his love of Romantic harmony inevitably produces rather thick textures, his music seldom sounds cluttered. The total impression is, rather, of economy and clarity of expression.

Almost any of Ferguson's extended works may be taken as typical of his style, for having found a very confident manner in his 20s he remained faithful to it, and later works show only marginal changes. The Octet is a case in point. Cast in four fairly short movements, its formal structures are based on Classical models: a sonata form for the first movement, a scherzo in a rondo pattern for the second, a lyrical ternary form for the slow movement, and for the finale a species of sonata form that is free enough to admit extended reference to the main theme of the first movement. Indeed, cyclic unity is the clue to the entire work, for all its thematic material is closely related. The underlying Classical forms are thus blurred by a sense of continual rhapsodic evolution from a single thematic source. Careful disposition of the instruments ensures that a relatively complex texture sounds light and airy, and since it is derived almost wholly from the main thematic material (presented often in fragmented form) each instrument plays its part in the process of freely evolving thematic argument. The parallel with Walton is striking, and Ferguson shows something of the same nervous rhythmic energy which serves to offset the bittersweet mood that lies at the root of the style they share.



5 Irish Folktunes, vc/va, pf, 1927


2 Ballads, Bar, orch, 1928–32


Sonata no.1, vn, pf, 1931


3 Medieval Carols, 1v, pf, 1932–3


Octet, cl, bn, hn, str qt, db, 1933

5 Pipe Pieces, 3 bamboo pipes, 1934–5


Partita, orch, 1935–6; also for 2 pf as op.5b


4 Short Pieces, cl/va, pf, 1932–6


4 Diversions on Ulster Airs, orch, 1939–42


Sonata, fl, pf, 1938–40


5 Bagatelles, pf, 1944


Sonata no.2, vn, pf, 1946


Chauntecleer, ballet, orch, 1948, withdrawn


Concerto, pf, str, 1950–51


Discovery (D. Welch), 1v, pf, 1951


2 Fanfares, 4 tpt, 3 trbn, 1952


Overture for an Occasion, orch, 1952–3


5 Irish Folksongs, 1v, pf, 1954


Amore langueo, T, chorus, orch, 1955–6


The Dream of the Rood, S/T, chorus, orch, 1958–9


MSS in GB-Ob

Principal publisher: Boosey & Hawkes


William Tisdall: Complete Keyboard Works (London, 1958, 2/1971)Style and Interpretation: an Anthology of 16th–19th Century Keyboard Music: Early Keyboard Music: England & France; Early Keyboard Music: Germany & Italy; Classical Piano Music; Romantic Piano Music; Keyboard Duets (London, 1963–71)Henry Purcell: Eight Suites (London, 1964, 2/1968)Henry Purcell: Miscellaneous Keyboard Pieces (London, 1964)John Blow: Six Suites (London, 1965)Sequels to Style and Interpretation: Early French Keyboard Music(London, 1966); Early Italian Keyboard Music (London, 1968); Early German Keyboard Music (London, 1970); Early English Keyboard Music(London, 1971)Anne Cromwell's Virginal Book, 1638 (London, 1974)with C. Hogwood: William Croft: Complete Harpsichord Works, i, ii (London, 1974)Schubert: Complete Pianoforte Sonatas (London, 1978–9)R. Schumann: Piano Works (London, 1981–9)J. Brahms: Shorter Piano Works (London, 1985–8)


(selective list)

‘Gerald Finzi (1901–1956)’, ML, xxxviii (1957), 130–35

‘Early Keyboard Music’, Keyboard Music, ed. D. Matthews (London, 1972), 11–67

Keyboard Interpretation from the 14th to the 19th Century (London, 1975)

‘Keyboard Music, §I’, Grove6


E. Rubbra: ‘Howard Ferguson’, MMR, lxviii (1938), 100–03

J. Russell: ‘Howard Ferguson's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra’, Tempo, no.24 (1952), 24–6

J. Russell: ‘Howard Ferguson's “Amore langueo”’, Tempo, no.41 (1956), 7–10

A. Burn: ‘The Music of Howard Ferguson’, MT, cxxiv (1983), 480–82

H. Cobbe: ‘Howard Ferguson at 80’, MT, cxxix (1988), 507–10

A. Ridout, ed.: The Music of Howard Ferguson (London, 1989)


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