Between 1973 and 1986 he taught composition at the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg, Germany.
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. In 1984 he was given the title Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
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.
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). 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.
His 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. In addition, the production was picketed by a group called Militant Esthetix over the treatment of and association with Walter Benjamin, amongst other things.
Works for string quartet
First String Quartet (1963)
Sonatas for String Quartet (1967)
Second String Quartet (1980)
Third String Quartet (1987)
Fourth String Quartet (1989–90)
Fifth String Quartet (2006)
Dum transisset I–IV for string quartet (2007)
Exordium for string quartet (2008)
Sixth String Quartet (2010)
Selected solo works
Sieben Sterne for organ (1970)
Cassandra's Dream Song for flute (1970–71)
Time and Motion Study I for bass clarinet (1971–77)
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)
Ferneyhough has been called "the most controversial composer of his generation". "In the same year , 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". "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."
Ferneyhough, Brian. Brian Ferneyhough by Brian Ferneyhough. Paris: L'Age d'homme OCLC21274317 (French)
^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.
^Richard Whitehouse, "Shadowtime", Classical Source (accessed 19 June 2011).
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.
Pace, Ian. [Review:] "Brian Femeyhough, Collected Writings, edited by James Boros and Richard Toop. Harwood Academic Publishers; Ferneyhough: String Quartet No. 4; Kurze Schatten II ; Trittico per G. S.; Terrain, Arditti String Quartet with Brenda Mitchell (sop); Magnus Andersson (gtr); Stefano Scodanibbio (db); Irvine Arditti (vln) with ASKO Ensemble c. Jonathan Nott. Disques Montaigne MO 7 82029. Ferneyhough: Prometheus; La Chute D'Icare; On Stellar Magnitudes; Superscriptio; Carceri d'Invezione III. Luisa Castellani (voice); Felix Renggli (fl); Ernesto Molinari (cl); Ensemble Contrechamps c. Giorgio Bernasconi, Zsolt Nagy, Emilio Pomarico. ACCORD 205772". 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.