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ClassicsOnline Home » FERGUSON, H.: Piano Sonata in F Minor / Discovery / 5 Bagatelles / Partita (Terroni, Bannister, Peaceman)
Belfast-born Ferguson’s reputation as a composer rests on the nineteen published works that he wrote between 1928 and 1959. Rhythmic energy endows his music with its exciting sense of momentum, underpinned by his command of Baroque and Classical forms and grasp of Romantic harmony and melody. Such characteristics of ‘progressive conservatism’ may be heard in his Partita for Two Pianos, the earliest work on this disc. Ferguson’s only song cycle, Discovery, was one of Kathleen Ferrier’s favourite works and is acknowledged as one of his finest compositions.
Howard Ferguson (1908–1999)
Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 8 • Discovery, Op. 13 • Five Bagatelles, Op. 9
Partita for Two Pianos, Op. 5b
Howard Ferguson was born in Belfast on 12 October 1908. On the advice of pianist Harold Samuel, he was educated at Westminster School and the Royal College of
Music; studying composition with R.O. Morris and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and conducting with Malcolm Sargent. It was at this time he also formed an enduring friendship with the composer Gerald Finzi, whose music he was to promote assiduously in the years after the latter’s death in 1956. During the Second World War he assisted Myra Hess in organizing the much-lauded concerts of chamber music at the National Gallery. Ferguson’s earliest notable success as a composer had come with the performance of his First Violin Sonata at the Wigmore Hall in October 1932, followed three years later by his Two Ballades at
the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester. It was for the latter event that he wrote his two most substantial works, Amore langueo in 1956 and The Dream of the Rood in 1959, whereupon he decided that he had said all that he needed to say and ceased original composition.
In the years following this cessation Ferguson concentrated on performing, teaching and musicology. He edited several anthologies of pre-classical keyboard music, featuring the collected works of John Blow, Henry Purcell and William Tisdall; volumes of French and Italian composers, critical editions of all the Schubert sonatas as well as selected piano works by Brahms and Schumann. He also published the well-regarded book Keyboard Interpretation in 1975. As a pianist he enjoyed several long-standing partnerships, notably those with the violinist Yfrah Neaman and the pianist Dennis Matthews. He also taught composition at the Royal College of Music
between 1948 and 1963, where his many students included such significant figures as Richard Rodney Bennett, Susan Bradshaw and Cornelius Cardew. He was made an honorary Doctor of Music by Queen’s University, Belfast in 1959. During his later years, he lived and worked in Cambridge, where he died on 1 November 1999.
Ferguson’s reputation as a composer, which was to attract renewed interest during the two decades before his death, rests on the nineteen published works that he wrote between 1928 and 1959. From the outset, a command of Classical forms and procedures was allied to a grasp of Romantic harmony and melody, resulting in an idiom that is inherently yet never defensively conservative. Motivic evolution occupies a central rôle in his works, whether instrumental or vocal in their conception, as does a rhythmic energy that endows all his music with its continual and cumulative sense of momentum.
The earliest piece featured here, Partita was written simultaneously during 1935–36 for orchestra as well as for two pianos. The title alludes to the suites of dances prevalent in the Baroque period, but, as was Ferguson’s wont with the larger-scale works that emerged in its wake, extended and enriched by the formal and expressive thinking of subsequent eras. Thus the first movement is cast in the manner of a French Overture in that it opens and closes with powerfully wrought music that frames a driving Allegro which, along with its more relaxed second theme, sets up the purposeful development. Its scherzolike successor suggests elements of the courante in its energetic progress, though it is the understated second theme that emerges to bring about a quiet yet hardly serene close. The slow movement draws on the sarabande in its stately and unhurried progress, textures thinning out in the rarified central section to reveal an alluring
transparency. Ferguson suggested elements of a reel as lying behind the finale, whose initially robust humour gives way to greater inwardness as earlier ideas are fleetingly recalled, before a re-gathering of energy on the way to a resolute conclusion.
As mentioned above, it was the encouragement of Harold Samuel that led to the teenage Ferguson embarking on a musical career in earnest. Samuel gave piano tuition while the latter was studying at the Royal College of Music, and continued to act as his mentor thereafter. His sudden death in 1937 inevitably came as a great shock, Ferguson pouring his emotional response into the Piano Sonata written during 1938–40 and which duly consolidated his reputation when given its première by Myra Hess at the National Gallery in April 1940. Its intent is evident from the outset of the first movement, where a stormily rhetorical introduction only gradually makes way for a sonata-form trajectory whose angular first theme contrasts with a more lyrical successor. There is a short but intensive development and truncated reprise, before the coda recalls the mood of the opening without resolution being reached. The slow movement follows on directly (all three movements are to be played without pause): its predominant mood is of subdued reflection, but this does not preclude the emergence of more forceful emotion in the central section. The finale attempts to resolve the accumulated tensions with a sonata-allegro whose two main themes build to a massive climax, out of which the music seems to be heading to a resigned conclusion. The defiant gestures from the very opening return, however, to see the whole work through to a close in which there can be no false consolation.
The sonata was to have no successor, though Ferguson did write a further work for piano in his Five Bagatelles of 1944. Dedicated to Arnold van Wyck, who provided the five-note ‘formulas’ from which each of these pieces is derived, they were again taken up by Myra Hess, whose disc was the first commercial recording of Ferguson’s music. With a single pause between the third and fourth items, they divide into two ‘movements’: thus the brusquely preludal First and intermezzo-like Second is followed by the scherzo-like Third; while the rapt inwardness of the Fourth contrasts with the athletic Fifth.
Despite (or perhaps even because of) his deep friendship with Finzi, Ferguson produced relatively few songs. His only song-cycle is Discovery, composed in
1951 to verse by Denton Welch (1915–48); specifically the latter’s posthumous collection A Last Sheaf. The inward and often ominous character of all these poems, moreover, no doubt prompted Ferguson to some of his most astringent and forward-looking music. Hence the first setting, Dreams Melting, with its harmonic unease that underlines the transition between sleeping and waking; the melodic line that struggles and ultimately fails to define itself in the second setting, The Freedom of the City; the far from tender austerity of mood that permeates the third setting Babylon; the decidedly ambivalent humour of the fourth setting, Jane Allen, evincing an unexpectedly sardonic edge; finally, the setting of Discovery, with its depiction of tramping feet and ringing bells, leading on to a close of sustained emotional intensity. Not for nothing was this cycle a favourite of contralto Kathleeen Ferrier, whose recording of it shortly before her death in 1953 added a valedictory note to one of Ferguson’s finest works.
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