Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Howard Ferguson: A Largely Forgotten Centenary

I can hardly believe that I have managed to get to Hogmanay 2008/2009 without a single mention of one of the most respected musicians and composers who had their centenary in the (nearly) past year.

His name is probably well-known to many musical folk, not so much for his compositions as for his editions of 'old' keyboard music. My copy of the ‘graded’ Haydn Sonatas was edited by Ferguson and they are never too far away from my side at the piano. Pianists and harpsichordists will be acquainted with his monumental “Style and Interpretation: an Anthology of 16th–19th Century Keyboard Music.”

Howard Ferguson was born on 21 October 1908 in Belfast. When he was thirteen years old, the great British pianist Harold Samuel heard him playing, and decided to take him on as a private pupil. Ferguson won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music where he studied composition with R.O. Morris. Meanwhile, he continued his piano studies with Samuel. In addition he studied conducting with Sir Malcolm Sargent.
For a short time, Ferguson tried to make a living as a concert pianist, although he later abandoned this to dedicate himself to composition, however, he did continue to perform his own music. In 1948 he took up a post of music teaching for some fifteen years at the Royal Academy. Finzi enthusiasts will know that Howard Fergusson had a deep and lasting friendship with this former fellow student and composer.
Howard Ferguson died in 1999.

Ferguson’s compositions include a couple of Ballads for baritone and orchestra (1928-1932), an important Piano Concerto (1950-51) The Dream of the Rood (1958-59) which is a fine cantata for soprano, chorus and orchestra, Amore Languo (1955-56) for tenor chorus and orchestra and a very competent Overture for an Occasion (1952-53).

However it was with his chamber music that Howard Ferguson probably excelled. It was his Violin Sonata No.1 that first marked him out as a composer when it was given its first performance at the Wigmore Hall in 1932. And perhaps his finest work is the Octet which followed a year later. For pianists, there is an excellent Piano Sonata (1938-1940) and a set of Five Bagatelles (1944) which are just about in the gift an amateurs.

Of course it is a fairly well known fact that Howard Ferguson largely gave up composing upon reaching his Op.19 in 1959. He claimed that he had said all that he wanted to say!

Howard Ferguson’s works are little known to the majority of listeners, however if you can listen to only one work, I suggest the Piano Concerto is a great place to begin. There is a fine version of this work played by Peter Donohoe and the Northern Sinfonia on Naxos

I have no doubt that if this work was by a Polish or German composer it would be in the public domain. As it stands I imagine that it is well known to a handful of British music enthusiasts. Yet what a great and wonderful work it is. It is not really necessary to try making comparisons. This is a beautifully composed piece that throws introspection and an extrovert, almost ‘puckish’ feel into contrast, yet manages to give a satisfying sense of completeness. Of course the heart of the work is the reflective ‘theme and Variations’ – this movement is quite bitter-sweet and stays in the mind long after the last note plays. The last movement, an Allegro giovale, is a tour de force. However there are some quieter, more introverted moments and there is a reprise of the slow movement ‘tune’ towards the end. But this is positive, uplifting music that is a joy and pleasure and a privilege to listen to.

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