Obituary: Howard Ferguson

HOWARD FERGUSON was a man imbued with music from the start. His talent as a pianist became evident very early, a gift for composition soon emerged and both eventually combined to make him a percipient, scholarly editor of keyboard music. All this was allied to a clear grasp of the everyday practicalities of being a working musician which enabled him to perform what was perhaps his most notable public service: the planning and production, under Myra Hess's leadership, of the daily lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery which continued uninterrupted from October 1939 to April 1946.

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz