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Brian Ferneyhough

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Brian Ferneyhough

Brian John Peter Ferneyhough (;[1][2] born 16 January 1943) is an English composer, who has resided in California, United States since 1987. His work characterized by highly complex notation and the extensive use of irregular nested rhythmic tuplets, Ferneyhough is typically considered to be the central figure of the New Complexity movement.[3][4] Ferneyhough taught composition at the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg and the University of California at San Diego, and currently, Stanford University, and is a regular lecturer in the summer courses at Darmstädter Ferienkurse.


Ferneyhough was born in Coventry and received formal musical training at the Birmingham School of Music and the Royal Academy of Music from 1966–67, where he studied with Lennox Berkeley. Ferneyhough was awarded the Mendelssohn Scholarship in 1968 and moved to mainland Europe to study with Ton de Leeuw in Amsterdam, and later with Klaus Huber in Basel.

Between 1973 and 1986 he taught composition at the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg, Germany.[5]

The Royan Festival of 1974 saw the premiere of Cassandra's Dream Song, the first of several pieces for solo flute, as well as Missa Brevis, written for 12 singers. In 1975, performances of his work for large ensemble Transit and Time and Motion Study III were given; the former piece being awarded a Koussevitzky prize, the latter performed at the Donaueschingen festival. In many of these events he was paired with fellow British composer, Michael Finnissy, with whom he became friends during his student days.[6] In 1984 he was given the title Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.[7]

Between 1987 and 1999 he was Professor of Music at the University of California at San Diego. His graduate students at UCSD included composers Chaya Czernowin and Mark Applebaum, among many others. In 2000, he became William H. Bonsall Professor in Music at Stanford University. For the 2007–08 academic year, he was Visiting Professor at the Harvard University Department of Music. Between 1978 and 1994 Ferneyhough was a composition lecturer at the Darmstädter Ferienkurse and, since 1990, has directed an annual mastercourse at the Fondation Royaumont in France.

In 2007, Ferneyhough received the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize for lifetime achievement.[8] In 2009 he was appointed foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music.

New Complexity

Ferneyhough's initial forays into composition were met with little sympathy in England. His submission of Coloratura to the Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM) in 1966 was returned, with a suggestion that the oboe part should be scored for clarinet. Whilst Ferneyhough did find it hard, one source of support came from Hans Swarsenski who saw the same thing happen to Cornelius Cardew; Cardew enjoyed a prestigious continental reputation, but a poor one in his homeland. Swarsenski said of Ferneyhough: 'I've taken on an English composer who is I think is enormously talented. If this doesn't work, this is the last time'. Ferneyhough continued to struggle, but the aforementioned Royan festival marked a breakthrough for Ferneyhough's career.[9]

From here, Ferneyhough became closely associated with the so-called New Complexity school of composition (indeed, he is often referred to as the "Father of New Complexity"), characterized by its extension of the modernist tendency towards formalization (particularly as in integral serialism).[3][4] Ferneyhough's actual compositional approach, however, rejects serialism and other "generative" methods of composing; he prefers instead to use systems only to create material and formal constraints, while their realisation appears to be more spontaneous.[10]

His scores make huge technical demands on performers. The compositions have, however, attracted a number of advocates, among them the Arditti Quartet, ELISION Ensemble, the members of the Nieuw Ensemble, Ensemble Contrechamps, Ensemble Exposé, Armand Angster, James Avery, Massimiliano Damerini, Arne DeForce, Friedrich Gauwerky, Nicolas Hodges, Mark Knoop, Geoffrey Morris, Ian Pace, Carl Rosman, Harry Spaarnay, and EXAUDI Vocal Ensemble.

One of his latest works, an opera, Shadowtime, with a libretto by Charles Bernstein, and based on the life of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, was premiered in Munich on 25 May 2004, and recorded in 2005 for CD release in 2006. As is usual for Ferneyhough's works, the opera received mixed reviews.[11][12][13] In addition, the production was picketed by a group called Militant Esthetix over the treatment of and association with Walter Benjamin, amongst other things.[14]

Selected works

include score samplesSound and MusicSome works at

Works for string quartet

  • Sonatas for String Quartet (1967)
  • Second String Quartet (1980)
  • Adagissimo (1983)
  • Third String Quartet (1987)
  • Fourth String Quartet (1989–90)
  • Fifth String Quartet (2006)
  • Sixth String Quartet (2010)
  • Dum transisset I–IV for string quartet (2007)
  • Exordium for string quartet (2008)
  • Silentium (2014)

Selected solo works

  • Time and Motion Study I for solo bass clarinet (1971–77)
  • Lemma-Icon-Epigram for solo piano (1982)
  • Etudes Transcendantales (1985)
  • Kurze Schatten II for solo guitar (1989) (essay, analysis, analysis, score sample)
  • Trittico per G.S. for solo double bass (1989)
  • Bone Alphabet for solo percussion (1991) (score sample)
  • Unsichtbare Farben for violin (1999) (score sample)

For non-orchestral ensemble

  • Transit for solo voices and ensemble (1972–75)
  • Time and Motion Study II for singing cellist and live electronics (1973–76)
  • Time and Motion Study III for sixteen solo voices (3S, Mez, 4A, 4T, 2Bar, 2B), percussion and electronics (1974)
  • Carceri d'Invenzione I for fl, ob, 2cl, bn, hn, tpt, trb, euphonium, 1perc, pf, 2vn, va, vc, db [1121, 1111.2111] (1982) (analysis, score sample)
    (inspired by the "Carceri d'Invenzione by Giambattista Piranesi)
  • Carceri d'Invenzione II for flute and ensemble (1985)
  • Carceri d'Invenzione III for fifteen wind instruments and percussion (1986)
  • La Chute d’Icare for solo clarinet and chamber ensemble (1988) (program note)
  • Allgebrah for oboe and 9 solo strings (1996) (score sample)
  • Incipits for solo viola, obbligato percussion and six instruments (1996)
  • The Doctrine of Similarity for chorus (SATB), 3 clarinets, violin, piano and percussion (2000) (score sample)
  • Chronos-Aion for large ensemble (2007–8)
  • Renvoi/Shards for quarter-tone guitar and vibraphone (2008)
  • Liber Scintillarum for 6 instruments (2012)

For orchestra

  • La Terre est un Homme for orchestra (1979)
  • Plötzlichkeit for large orchestra (2006)



Ferneyhough has been called "the most controversial composer of his generation".[15] "In the same year [1974], the performance of several of his works at the Royan Festival established Ferneyhough as one of the most brilliant and controversial figures of a new generation of composers".[16] "Brian Ferneyhough may well be one of the most important composers to emerge from the latter half of this century. Simultaneously famous and infamous, he is a controversial figure of world renown, bent on making the most out of music."[17]


  • Ferneyhough, Brian. Brian Ferneyhough by Brian Ferneyhough. Paris: L'Age d'homme OCLC 21274317 (French)


  1. ^ Matthias Kriesberg "A Music So Demanding That It Sets You Free" The New York Times (8 December 2002). "Ferneyhough (pronounced FUR-nee-ho)"
  2. ^ Pronouncing Dictionary of Music and Musicians "FUR-nih-ho"
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^ Richard Toop, "Ferneyhough, Brian", Grove Music Online (Updated 22 Oct 2008), edited by Deane Root (accessed 9 September 2012).
  6. ^ Michael Finnissy, "Biography", Official Michael Finnissy website. Retrieved on 17 February 2009.
  7. ^ "Acadia New Music Festival: Shattering the Silence".  
  8. ^ Composer Brian Ferneyhough wins 2007 Siemens Music Prize
  9. ^ Toop 2002, p. 139
  10. ^ Richard Toop, "Ferneyhough, Brian", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed 21 April 2008).
  11. ^ Andrew Clements, "Friday Review: Opera of the Phantom: Brian Ferneyhough Is the Last Composer You'd Expect to Produce a Stage Work, but the Life—and death, and afterlife—of the Philosopher Walter Benjamin Inspired Him to Write an Opera Like No Other", The Guardian (8 July 2005):11.
  12. ^ Richard Whitehouse, "Shadowtime", Classical Source (accessed 19 June 2011).
  13. ^ Gavin Dixon, "Ferneyhough – Chamber works", (accessed 18 June 2011).
  14. ^ Defend Benjamin Campaign
  15. ^ "Brian Ferneyhough, Solo Works". The Ensemble Sospeso New York website (accessed 31 May 2011).
  16. ^ "Brian Ferneyhough, composer". Monday Evening Concerts website (accessed 31 May 2011).
  17. ^ Ross Alan Feller, "Multicursal Labyrinths in the Work of Brian Ferneyhough" (DMA dissertation, Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois, 1994): 1.


  • Boros, James, and Richard Toop (eds.). The Collected Writings of Brian Ferneyhough. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995. Review by Ian Pace
  • Bortz, Graziela. Rhythm in the music of Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Finnissy, and Arthur Kampela : a guide for performers. Ph.D. Thesis, City University of New York, 2003.
  • Duncan, Stuart. "Re-complexifying the Function(s) of Notation in the Music of Brian Ferneyhough and the “New Complexity”. Perspectives of New Music 48, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 136–72.
  • Tempo new series, no. 203 (January 1998): 45–48, 50–52.
  • Rosser, Peter. "Brian Ferneyhough and the 'Avant-Garde Experience': Benjaminian Tropes in Funérailles". Perspectives of New Music 48, no. 2 (Summer 2010):114–51.
  • Schick, Steven. "Bone AlphabetDeveloping an Interpretive Context: Learning Brian Ferneyhough's " (Subscription Access). Perspectives of New Music 32, no. 1 (Winter, 1994): 132–53.
  • Tadday, Ulrich (ed.). "Brian Ferneyhough". Munich: Edition Text+Kritik in Richard Boorberg Verlag, 2008. (German)
  • Toop, Richard. "Brian Ferneyhough's Lemma-Icon-Epigram". Perspectives of New Music 28, no. 2 (Summer, 1990): 52–100.
  • Toop, Richard. "'Prima le Parole…' (On the Sketches for Ferneyhough's Carceri d'invenzione I–III)". Perspectives of New Music 32, no. 1 (Winter, 1994): 154–75.
  • Whittall, Arnold. "Connections and Constellations". The Musical Times 144, no. 1883 (Summer): 23–32.
  • Williams, Alastair. "Adorno and the Semantics of Modernism". Perspectives of New Music 37, no. 2 (Summer 1999): 1–22.

External links

  • Info at Brian Ferneyhough's publisher, Edition Peters – includes biography, works and selected discography
  • Info at Stanford University Department of Music
  • Living Composers Project
  • Interview (SOSPESO)
  • Open questions for Brian Ferneyhough (also applicable to other composers of our day) – turned into an interview, since Ferneyhough replied (Stanford IP address...)
  • NewMusicBox cover: Brian Ferneyhough in conversation with Molly Sheridan, July 22, 2005 (video excerpts from NewMusicBox)
  • An Interview with Brian Ferneyhough by Felipe Ribeiro, James Correa, Catarina Domenici (Search Journal for New Music and Culture; Summer 2009)
  • The Experience of Complexity by Larson Powell (Search Journal for New Music and Culture; Summer 2010)
  • Electric Chair Music / Time & Motion Study II; (film by Colin Still, cello: Neil Heyde, electronics: Paul Archbold)
  • Brian Ferneyhough wins 2007 Siemens Prize for Music
  • Excerpts from sound archives of Ferneyhough's works.
  • A biography on IRCAM's website (French)
  • Brian Ferneyhough at DMOZ
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