He was born in Belfast in 1908, the fifth and youngest child of Stanley and Frances Ferguson. His father, managing director of the Ulster Bank, and mother, though puzzled by his strong determination to have a musical career, assented immediately when Harold Samuel, the adjudicator of a 1922 piano competition in Belfast at which Ferguson won a prize, told them that he should take music seriously, come to London to study with him and, in due course, go to the Royal College of Music. For this Ferguson remained profoundly grateful to them until the end of his life.
In London he entered the Royal College of Music in the summer of 1924 at the early age of 15. His chief teachers were R.O. Morris for composition and Malcolm Sargent for conducting. He continued his piano studies privately with Harold Samuel, into whose house he moved as a lodger in 1925 (accompanied by his adored Nanny from Belfast, May Cunningham), remaining there until Samuel's death in 1937. Samuel was his greatest formative influence, both musical and personal: living in Samuel's household, not unlike a medieval apprentice, and finding himself in the midst of a stimulating musical circle, Ferguson learnt not only musicianship in the widest sense but a deep appreciation of the arts generally.
In 1928 he left the college realising that he did not have the acuity of ear to be a successful conductor while his uncertain musical memory deflected him from a career as a solo pianist. He therefore devoted himself to the performance of chamber music and to composition. He formed a piano trio with Eda Kersey and Helen Just while the Violin Sonata op 2 (first performed in 1931 by Isolde Menges and Harold Samuel and later recorded by Heifetz), the Octet op 4 of 1933 and the Partita op 5 (written in 1935-36 equally either for orchestra or two pianos) brought him early recognition as a composer.
Samuel's death left him with a deep sense of loss which inspired the Piano Sonata in F minor. Ferguson settled in Hampstead near Myra Hess, whom he had met through Samuel, and it was thus that when the Second World War broke out she at once asked him to help her run the concerts at the National Gallery for which she is so widely remembered. Ferguson also joined the RAF Central Band, where he worked with the Griller Quartet, but in view of the accepted importance of the concerts he was eventually released to work on them full-time. In all there were 1,698 concerts playing to a total audience of 824,152.
After the war he resumed both composition and his performing career, forming duos with two of the artists whom he had met through the concerts: Yfrah Neaman, the violinist, and Denis Matthews the pianist. From 1948 to 1963 he taught composition at the Royal Academy of Music, where his pupils included Richard Rodney Bennett, Susan Bradshaw and Cornelius Cardew.
The sequence of post-war works included a second violin sonata, dedicated to Neaman, a song cycle, Discovery (recorded by Kathleen Ferrier), and culminated in two cantatas based on medieval religious poems: Amore Langueo (1955) and The Dream of the Rood (1958). The intensity of the music inspired by both these poems is remarkable in that Ferguson always declared himself entirely free of any religious convictions. After 1958 however he found that every new work which he started was saying something he had already said and so he took the courageous decision to cease composition. Thus the extant corpus comprises some 20 works with opus numbers, of which just eight last more than 10 minutes.
He was always a slow, painstaking composer, exercising rigorous control over the structure and logical argument of his music; anything that did not meet his own high standards was destroyed. This approach to composition is reminiscent of Brahms, but Brahms's warm romanticism is replaced by a style that is a great deal more astringent. His work was considered by some to be anachronistic at the time he ceased composition (though this does not appear to have been a factor in that decision), but in recent years the major works have received regular performances, especially at the Three Choirs Festival, and have been recorded. The intrinsic artistic quality of their music has increasingly been recognised.
Balked of composition as an outlet for his creative energies, Ferguson found salvation in the editing of early keyboard music. After 1960 there followed a stream of authoritative editions by him through various publishers: all benefited from his insights as composer (he was scornful of editors who were slavishly willing to accept readings which were clearly wrong in compositional terms simply because they appear in the sources), pianist (in his notes he was always able to propose convincing technical solutions) and meticulous scholar. For a number of years he edited the exam books for the Associated Board, thus ensuring that young pianists had accurate texts to work on, and it was for the board that he produced his chef d'oeuvre in this field, a complete edition of the Schubert Sonatas (1978-79).
Ferguson had a gift for establishing lifelong friendships - especially important was that with his fellow composer Gerald Finzi, whom he met while at the college; he remained on close terms with Finzi and his wife, Joy, until their deaths. There was Myra Hess, who remarked that they had collaborated on the National Gallery concerts for six years "without once wanting to hit each other"; Ursula and Ralph Vaughan Williams; the South African composer Arnold van Wyck, whom he met during the war; his performing partners Yfrah Neaman and Denis Matthews and many others. As time went on he took special trouble to encourage younger musicians; we found in him a musical and personal integrity that, combined with a deep sense of humanity and a wry sense of humour, made him an example to be followed.
In his final years he wrote a cookbook, Entertaining Solo (1995), a memoir, Music, Friends and Places (1997), and at the time of his death had just completed, with Michael Hurd, an edition of his correspondence with Gerald Finzi.
Howard Ferguson, composer, pianist and musicologist: born Belfast 21 October 1908; died Cambridge 1 November 1999.