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Contemporary Period Celebration

Contemporary Celebration Concert
Play a "1-Click Concert™"

Contemporary Period Celebration
The Contemporary period (c.1945 to the present) is perhaps the most diverse of all eras of the Western classical music tradition, one that has witnessed a dizzying variety of styles, techniques, and aesthetics. Building upon the liberating innovations of the Modern period, composers over the past 60 years have left no realm of music – melody, rhythm, timbre, instrumental technique, stylistic interplay, etc. – unchallenged, creating music that ranges from the wildly complex and abstract to the surprisingly simple and accessible, and everything in between. This “Contemporary Celebration” is the final in our series of features devoted to the nine principal periods of music history, whereby we invite our visitors – regardless of experience – to explore and discover the many composers and works that exalt the era, and some of the outstanding artists that successfully bring it to our ears. Specifically, this Feature includes a brief written Overview of the Contemporary era, as well as a useful index of key composers, works, and artists – each of which is linked to the related page on our site. In addition, we provide a two-hour 1-Click Concert (full streams to our subscribers only), a featured “sampler” album, and a set of “Contemporary” videos. Enjoy!

“The more I grow, the more I detach myself from other composers... in my opinion we must get rid of music history once and for all.”
– Pierre Boulez

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Contemporary Period Overview

The expression “contemporary music” is generic to an extreme – meaning simply music written “today”, but has become commonplace to denote art music written since World War II, or more generally music written by composers living in our time. Broadly speaking, a division can be made between the reigning aesthetic before and after around 1970, although the entire period constitutes perhaps the most eclectic and “pluralistic” in music history. From 1945 through the late-1960s, a rejuvenated and rather austere application of Modernism was instituted under the influence of music theorists such as Adorno, who saw Arnold Schoenberg’s serial or 12-tone technique as the true path toward progress – dismissing as false prophets composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartòk who maintained some allegiance to tonality. The young, post-War generation of composers, led by Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti, Luciano Berio, Elliott Carter, and others, adopted especially Anton Webern’s abstract and pointillist language as a point of departure, and seemed to relish in the growing schism between composer and public, finding sanctuary in academia, as well as at modern music festivals at Darmstadt, Cologne, Paris, and elsewhere. New technology, especially via computers, was readily integrated into the progressive agenda, spawning the rise of electronic music, by composers such as Edgard Varèse, Luigi Nono, and Milton Babbitt – in turn further alienating traditional concert audiences.

From the mid-1970s, an opposing anti- or post-modernist aesthetic began to emerge, where modernist assumptions were questioned if not rejected. Eccentric thinkers such John Cage promoted a free approach to composition, with an openness to adopt any technique or aesthetic, including the possibilities of chance. An unprecedented eclecticism or pluralism arose among composers in Europe and America – where rock, pop, non-Western, modernist, or historical classical styles could be easily incorporated without claiming any one perspective as more legitimate than the other. Composers adopting a Minimalist approach – such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and John Adams – more directly challenged the modernist tendencies via a highly diatonic and deliberately repetitive, non-linear approach. A return to diatonic, accessible music, moreover, was derived not only from a desire to regain connection with larger audiences, but also as an expression of a new internationalism, spirituality, or mysticism – as in the works of Arvo Pärt, Lou Harrison, and Toru Takemitsu. Multiculturalism, “otherness”, and progressive views of race, class, and gender, are all aesthetic options for composers in today’s world, as are more “traditional” approaches of modernism and the incorporation of historical musical styles. Among other prominent composers working today include such diverse musical voices as John Corigliano, William Bolcom, Jennifer Higdon, and David Lang – to name but a few. Indeed, this is a truly fascinating time for composers and audiences alike!

Key Contemporary Period Works

Here is a short, and quite partial, list of some of the many masterpieces of the Contemporary era. Use this list as a springboard for further musical exploration. In addition, please enjoy the 1-Click Concert above, which is in large part based upon these selections.

Tippett, A Child of Our Time (oratorio)

Carter, String Quartet No.2

Carter, Cello Sonata

Dutilleux, Tout un monde lointain, concerto for cello and orchestra

Dutilleux, String Quartet 'Ainsi la nuit'

Harrison, Music for Violin and Various Instruments, European, Asian, and African

Xenakis, Nuits, for 12 voices

Foss, Piano Concerto No.1

Ligeti, 6 Etudes, Book 1

Ligeti, Atmosphères

Ligeti, Lux aeterna, for a cappella chorus (16 voices)

Nono, Cori di Didone, for chorus and percussion

Berio, Sequenza I, for flute

Berio, Sinfonia, for 8 amplified voices and orchestra

Boulez, Piano Sonata No.3

Henze, Symphony No.7

Feldman, Rothko Chapel, for soprano, alto, chorus, celeste, viola and percussion

Stockhausen, Stimmung (Copenhagen version), for 6 vocalists

Stockhausen, Mantra, for 2 pianos, percussion, and electronics

Stockhausen, Klavierstück IX

Denisov, Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Cello

Crumb, Music for a Summer Evening, for 2 amplified pianos and 2 percussionists

Takemitsu, A Flock Descends Into the Pentagonal Garden

Williams, Star Wars (film score)

Williams, Violin Concerto

Penderecki, Threnody 'to the Victims of Hiroshima', for 52 strings

Penderecki, St. Luke Passion, for 3 voices, narrator, choruses, and orchestra

Penderecki, Violin Concerto No.2 ('Metamorphosen')

Gorecki, Symphony No.3, Op.36 ('Symphony of Sorrowful Songs')

Gorecki, Miserere, Op.44

Schnittke, Concerto Grosso No.1, for 2 violins, harpsichord, prepared piano and strings

Schnittke, String Quartet No.2

Birtwistle, Ritual Fragment, for ensemble

Pärt, Spiegel im Spiegel, for violin and piano

Pärt, Berliner Messe, for chorus and organ

Pärt, Tabula rasa: Concerto for 2 Violins, Prepared Piano, and Strings

Reich, The Desert Music, for chorus and orchestra

Reich, Music for 18 Musicians, for 4 female voices and 16 instruments

Glass, Einstein on the Beach (opera)

Glass, Glassworks, 6 pieces for chamber ensemble or piano

Glass, Koyaanisquatsi (film score)

Bolcom, Songs of Innocence and Experience, for soloists, choruses, and orchestra

Bolcom, Cabaret Songs, for voice, cello and piano

Corigliano, Violin Concerto ('The Red Violin')

Corigliano, Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan, for voice and orchestra

Adams, Nixon in China (opera)

Adams, Short Ride in a Fast Machine: Fanfare for Orchestra

Adams, Shaker Loops, for 7 strings or string orchestra

Rihm, Verwandlung

Lang, The Little Match Girl Passion

Higdon, On a Wire

Top Contemporary Artists

Here is a short, and quite partial, list of the many outstanding artists (conductors, soloists, chamber groups, orchestras) featured on Classical Archives who specialize in performing music of the Contemporary era – divided into their various categories:


American Composers Orchestra

Århus Sinfonietta

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

Cape Philharmonic Orchestra

Colorado Symphony Orchestra

Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Kioi Sinfonietta Tokyo

London Sinfonietta

Nashville Symphony

New York Philharmonic

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra

San Francisco Symphony

Tapiola Sinfonietta

Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra


Marin Alsop

Pierre Boulez

Marcus Creed

Dennis Russell Davies

JoAnn Falletta

Alan Gilbert

Paul Hillier

Walter Nusaum

Helmuth Rilling

Wolfgang Sawallisch

Leonard Slatkin

Robert Spano

John Storgårds

Michael Tilson Thomas

Yan Pascal Tortelier

Antoni Wit

Vocal Ensembles

Ars Nova Copenhagen

Dale Warland Singers

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Hilliard Ensemble

Los Angeles Master Chorale

Theatre of Voices

University of Texas Chamber Singers

Chamber Ensembles

Aisthesis Ensemble

American Brass Quintet

Bang on a Can

California EAR Unit

Carducci String Quartet

eighth blackbird

The Group for Contemporary Music

LaSalle Quartet

Molinari Quartet

Moscow Virtuosi

New Music Concerts Ensemble

Pacifica Quartet

Parallele Ensemble

Parker Quartet

Philip Glass Ensemble

Piano Circus Band

Rascher Saxophone Quartet

So Percussion


Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Wu Han

David Jalbert

Robert Levin

Bruce Levingston

Sabine Liebner

Ursula Oppens

Gerhard Oppitz

Other Instrumental Soloists

Øystein Baadsvik (tuba)

Eduard Brunner (clarinet)

Katherine DeJongh (Flute)

Claude DeLangle (saxophone)

Matt Haimovitz (cello)

Franz Halasz (guitar)

Hakan Hardenberger (trumpet)

Heinz Holliger (oboe)

Daniel Hope (violin)

Chloë Hanslip (violin)

Jeffrey Khaner (flute)

Timo Korhonen (guitar)

Gidon Kremer (violin)

Christian Lindberg (trombone)

Michael Ludwig (violin)

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)

Carolin Widmann (violin)


Carole Farley (soprano)

Joan La Barbara (soprano)

Hila Plitmann (soprano)

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