50 ModernIn 2012 BBC Radio 3’s new music programme Hear and Now put together a list of 50 Modern Classics, which became a regular feature during the year and also a podcast – with each of the 15 minute documentaries all still available. It’s not a ranking, but a list of works chosen by 50 people from the contemporary arts world spanning the period 1950-2000. Only one piece per composer was allowed. The BBC didn’t reveal was what on the list until each of the broadcasts happened, the result being that the full list didn’t ever get published generally except on the download page itself. So here it is in a more accessible form and in chronological, rather than broadcast order. Although it’s clearly a personal list shaped by those asked to nominate the works, it does reflect a recognized canon. I trawled through to find out how many of the works I already knew (to a greater or lesser extent) and the total was 23 out of the 50. I had at least heard of the composer for a further 17, but didn’t know anything about the remaining 10 on the list, most of those the more recent works. The podcasts are intriguing and entertaining, and the list is a great one from which to explore contemporary music a little further. I aim to write longer blog posts on each over time and will link to them from here as they are completed.

(November 2013 update) I am now starting to supplement the list with suggestions for modern classics from the year 2000 onwards. Any suggestions welcome.

1950 Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry – Symphonie pour un homme seul (nominated by Hollywood sound designer and film editor Walter Murch): written in the context of post-war Paris during Schaeffer’s early experiments at French Radio which led to the birth of musique concrete. The “symphony for one man alone” consists of twenty-two movements produced using turntables and mixers.

1950 Galina Ustvolskaya – Octet (nominated by composer and writer Gerard McBurney): the austere and uncompromising Octet for two oboes, four violins, timpani and piano, written in the shadow of the Soviet Zhdanov anti-formalism decree. Ustvolskaya (1919-2006) was a pupil of Shostakovich (who thought very highly of her), but forged her own, completely individual style.

1952 Morton Feldman – Extensions 3 (nominated by composer Howard Skempton): a piano piece from Feldman’s early output, challenging performers with music which is both very slow and very quiet. There were five in the series of chamber pieces under the title Extensions .Feldman said: “By extensions I do not mean continuities. I had the feeling of a bridge where you don’t see the beginning or the end, where what you see seems transfixed in space.”

1952 John Cage – 4’33” (nominated by artist Tacita Dean): the music of silence, where musicians who present the work do nothing aside from being present for the duration specified by the title. It’s concerned with the environmental sounds heard by the audience during performance and a challenge to conventional definitions about musicianship and musical experience, with parallels to the visual arts scene of 1950s New York.

1955 Pierre Boulez – Le Marteau sans Maitre (nominated by composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle): cycle for alto voice and mixed ensemble (flute, viola, guitar, vibraphone, and percussion), an example of total serialism, and a radical new approach to instrumentation, illuminating the fleeting, surrealist poetry of Rene Char. The title translates as “The hammer without a master”. The original version had six movements, but three new ones were added in 2004.

1955-57 Karlheinz Stockhausen – Gruppen (nominated by Finnish conductor and music director of Ensemble InterContemporain Susanna Malkki): an early Stockhausen work scored for three orchestras and a notorious challenge to conductors. The shape of a mountain view in Switzerland dictated the work’s tempo patterns. Roger Smalley called it “probably the first work of the post-war generation of composers in which technique and imagination combine on the highest level to produce an undisputable masterpiece”.

1958 Edgard Varese – Poeme electronique (nominated by composer and former Battles frontman Tyondai Braxton): Varese undertook a long struggle to create a futuristic music that he finally achieved in this piece, composed for an array of hundreds of loudspeakers inside the Le Corbusier-designed Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair. Varese designed a complex spatialization scheme exploiting the physical layout of the stomach-shaped pavilion, reportedly sending the sounds up and down the walls.

1959-60 Olivier Messiaen – Chronochromie (nominated by Composer George Benjamin): “exuberant, thrilling and virtuosic” orchestral piece in seven movements by Banjamin’s former teacher, a significant contribution to the European avant-garde scene of the 1960s. Its central concerns are musical time and colour. The sixth movement consists of 18 string instruments playing themes derived from notated birdsong.

c1960 Conlon Nancarrow – Study No.21 (nominated by Stephen Fry): Nancarrow’s Study No. 21 (also known as Canon X) for player piano. Working in obscurity until the 1980s, Nancarrow devoted his composing life to creating futuristic canonic studies for his custom-altered 1920s Ampico instrument, combining elements of jazz, Bach and Stravinsky. Canon X is a two-voice canon in which the lower voice continuously accelerates and the upper continuously decelerates over the course of the entire work, to form the shape of an ‘X’ on the piano roll.

1960-61 Witold Lutoslawski – Jeux Venitiens (nominated by conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen): a landmark Polish work for chamber orchestra from the early 1960s. Partly influenced by John Cage, Jeux Venitiens (“Venetian Games”) used chance procedures within the score to create rhythmic complexity. Lutoslawski identified it as his first mature statement.

1961 Giacinto Scelsi – Ygghur (nominated by cellist Frances-Marie Uitti): Italian composer (1905-88) from an aristocratic background whose work looks to the East for inspiration. He became notorious for his pieces written around a single pitch, modified through microtonal oscillations, harmonic allusions and changes in timbre and dynamics. The solo cello work Ygghur (the title is Sanskrit for catharsis) is the final part of Scelsi’s La Trilogia “autobiography in sound”, the first two parts of which were written in 1957.

1961 Gyorgy Ligeti – Atmospheres (nominated by film-maker Sophie Fiennes: orchestral work significant in Ligeti’s development for its use of massed, slow moving textures and cloud-like musical structures. Influenced by his earlier electronic experiments in Cologne, with many of the sounds created resembling electronic textures.

1964 Milton Babbitt – Philomel (nominated by Jazz pianist Ethan Iverson): for soprano and tape, employing the timbral and rhythmic resources of the Mark II RCA Sound Synthesizer to help Babbitt realise his own brand of twelve-tone music. It combines the synthesizer with both live and recorded soprano voice. It’s based on Ovid’s myth of Philomela, a maiden without the capability of speech, her escape from King Tereus, and her transformation into a nightingale

1964 Terry Riley – In C (nominated by singer and conductor Paul Hillier: a semi-aleatoric piece scored for any number of people (though a group of about 35 is suggested), and no set duration. It begins on a C major chord. An icon of musical minimalism and a monument to the experimental atmosphere of 60s West Coast America.

1964 Toru Takemitsu – Kwaidan (nominated by writer and musician David Toop): the soundtrack for Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 chiller Kwaidan, based on Lefcadio Hearn’s retelling of Japanese ghost stories. The composer worked closely with the director and recording technicians to create a soundworld that was integral to the drama of the film.

1965-6 Jean Barraque- Chant après chant (nominated by pianist Nicolas Hodges: one of just a handful of surviving works by this contemporary of Boulez and Stockhausen whose death in 1973 at the age of 45 robbed the contemporary music world of one of its most innovative and deeply expressive voices.

1966 ‎Pauline Oliveros – V of IV (nominated by composer and Hear and Now presenter Robert Worby): an early electronic work by American pioneer Oliveros,a founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960s. Despite the contradictory title, V of IV is the last of the Four Electronic Pieces composed between 1959 and 1966.

1966 Igor Stravinsky – Requiem Canticles (nominated by composer John Woolrich): Stravinsky’s last completed work with orchestra (plus two soloists and chorus), this sparsely scored “pocket requiem” has nine movements (six of them vocal) over a 15 minute span and is written in a modern serial style, containing many of the hallmarks of his very earliest pieces.

1966 Iannis Xenakis – Nomos Alpha (nominated by mathematician Marcus du Sautoy): Xenakis uses the symmetry of a cube to determine musical parameters in this work for solo cello. It’s an example of “symbolic music”, the use of set theory, abstract algebra, and mathematical logic in order to create and analyze musical compositions. Xenakis credits his teacher Olivier Messiaen in helping him to find his own compositional voice.

1967 Morton Subotnick – Silver Apples of the Moon (nominated by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden): a classic of early electronic music, and one of the first pieces to be conceived specifically for two sides of an LP. It was created on the Electric Music Box, a voltage controlled synthesizer built by instrument designer Don Buchla at the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

1968 Luciano Berio – Sinfonia (nominated by conductor Richard Bernas): a work which reflected and commented on the events of its time, from the Paris riots to the assassination of Martin Luther King, and whose third movement is an extraordinary assemblage of musical and literary quotations, with texts including Levi-Strauss’s Le Cru et le cuit and Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable.

1969 Peter Maxwell Davies – Eight Songs for a Mad King (nominated by writer and critic Paul Driver): a monodrama for baritone and six players with a libretto by Randolph Stow, based on words of George III, uniquely important in the development of music theatre. The taxing vocal part uses an extraordinary command of extended techniques covering more than five octaves.

1969 Alvin Lucier – I am sitting in a room (nominated by sound artist Kaffe Matthews): an electro-acoustic work featuring Lucier recording himself narrating a text, and then playing the recording back into the room, re-recording it. The new recording is then played back and re-recorded, and this process is repeated. It explores both the acoustic properties of enclosed spaces and the complexities of the human voice.

1970 George Crumb – Black Angels (nominated by violinist David Harrington): groundbreaking work for electric string quartet, and the work which inspired him to form the Kronos Quartet. Full of dark foreboding and extreme sounds, in direct reaction to the Vietnam War.

1970 Per Norgard – Symphony No 2 (nominated by novelist and critic Philip Hensher): one of the first pieces in which the Danish composer used his own ‘infinity series’, a serial compositional system, to determine the melody and form of an entire work.

1971 Harrison Birtwistle – The Triumph of Time (nominated by pianist Joanna MacGregor): an orchestral work reflecting on the subject of time in music which MacGregor describes as “sculpted, dream-like and mesmeric”. The London premiere marked a new departure for the composer.

1971 Gavin Bryars – Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (nominated by cultural historian Robert Hewison): a mould-breaking and hugely popular crossover score that came about almost accidentally, when Bryars found a recording of an elderly homeless man singing lines from a Victorian hymn.

1971 Cornelius Cardew – The Great Learning (nominated by pianist and Scratch Orchestra member John Tilbury): a series of seven “paragraphs” using texts derived from Confucius, scored for varying numbers of trained and untrained performers.The political thinking of radical British composer and activist Cornelius Cardew suggested that musicians abandon ‘individual choice’ and join together to orchestrate social change.

1971 Elliott Carter – String Quartet No.3 (nominated by novelist and poet Mark Haddon): an example of Carter’s use of metric modulation (involving the transitions between frequent, precise tempo changes) and “eclipses” of sound (shifts between contrasting sections of clarity and density). Reminds Haddon of an argumentative family meal involving four characters and a string quartet “poured onto an ice rink“.

1971-74 Philip Glass – Music in Twelve Parts (nominated by composer Nico Muhly): a large-scale set of pieces for electric organs, voice, flutes and saxophones which is considered to be an early masterpiece of the New York minimalist. This numerical process music attains its human quality through the choice of sounds.

1972-4 Luigi Nono – Al gran sole carico d’amore (nominated by theatre director Katie Mitchell): an operatic work which interweaves stories from the 1871 Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution. The music of Nono successfully combines lyrical and communicative aspects with the strict world of post-war serialism.

1975 Gerard Grisey – Partiels (nominated by composer Julian Anderson): for an orchestra of 18 musicians, the third of French spectralist Gerard Grisey’s ambitious cycle of six works Les Espaces Acoustiques (“Acoustic Spaces”), spanning the years 1974-85. Grisey (1946-1998) studied with Messian and Duttlieux, and later in Darmstadt with Ligeti, Stockhausen and Xenakis. He composed with sounds rather than notes: the opening is derived from an electronic sonogram analysis of the attack of a low E2 on a trombone.

1976 Louis Andriessen – De Staat (nominated by Dutch composer Michel van der Aa): the Dutch composer’s 1976 work for amplified voices and large ensemble has scoring informed as much by rock music as Stravinsky. The composer reveals that a recording of a Javanese women’s choir fed directly into the soundworld of this powerful setting of a text from Plato’s Republic.

1976-8 Hans Abrahamsen – Winternacht (nominated by author Paul Griffiths):an early work for ensemble by the Danish composer, a sonic evocation of nature which takes its name from a poem by Georg Trakl. The pictures of M.C. Escher, one of the piece’s dedicatees, are also an influence.

1977 Arvo Part – Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten (nominated by composer Roxanna Panufnik) :this is “beautifully simple and spiritual” music, says Panufnik. Part struggled to find his own voice in Soviet Estonia. He eventually broke through with a radical new style he called Tintinnabuli.

1980 Jonathan Harvey – Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (nominated by film director Barrie Gavin): a landmark electroacoustic piece made from the sound of the largest bell at Winchester Cathedral and the voice of the composer’s chorister son. Harvey used technology at IRCAM in Paris to manipulate and integrate these two sounds. Significance is derived from the bell’s inscription and the qualities of its tonal spectrum.

1980 Claude Vivier – Lonely Child (nominated by the soprano Barbara Hannigan): a profoundly moving work for soprano and orchestra, conceived as one single melody, with the entire orchestra “transformed into a timbre”, to create “great beams of colour”. Stockhausen, Gregorian chant and the traditional music of Bali all contributed to this composer’s distinctive soundworld.

1982 George Benjamin – At First Light (nominated by Gillian Moore, head of classical music, Southbank Centre): an early score for a chamber ensemble of 14 players inspired by the Turner oil painting Norham Castle, Sunrise in which solid objects – fields, cows and the castle itself – virtually appear to have melted under the intense sunlight. In the piece, punctuated, clearly defined musical phrases are ‘melted’ into a flowing, nebulous continuum of sound.

1982 Michael Nyman – The Draughtsman’s Contract (nominated by violinist Alexander Balanescu): Nyman’s groundbreaking score for Peter Greenaway’s 1982 feature film The Draughtsman’s Contract is closely associated with the British experimental music tradition.

1982 Kevin Volans – White Man Sleeps (nominated by choreographer Siobhan Davies): written by the South African-born composer in the the context of Cologne in the late 1970s. Volans set out to integrate African and European aesthetics in this piece, which draws on traditional music from southern Africa and is scored for viola da gamba, two harpsichords and percussion.

1982-4 Helmut Lachenmann – Mouvement (- vor der Erstarrung) (nominated by pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard): maverick German composer Helmut Lachenmann (b 1935) is particularly associated with musique concrete. This work for ensemble uses unconventional playing techniques to create a rich and highly crafted soundworld the composer has described as “musique concrete instrumentale”.

1984 Elaine Radigue – Songs of Milarepa (nominated by author and journalist Rob Young): the French electronic music composer (b 1932) combines drone-like electronics with the voices of Lama Kunga Rinpoche and Robert Ashley singing and reading the words of the 11th-century Tibetan Buddhist poet Jetsun Milarepa.

1988 Steve Reich – Different Trains (nominated by Matthew Herbert, songwriter and electronic music producer): seminal 1988 piece for string quartet and tape, where recorded speech leads the melodic lines to create a remarkable and evocative atmosphere.

1988-9 Gyorgy Kurtag – Officium Breve (nominated by critic and Hear and Now presenter Ivan Hewett): work for string quartet in memoriam Andreae Szervanszky. Hungarian composer Kurtag (b 1926) was developing the ideas of Webern in this piece, which consists of 15 very consise movements in a work less than 12 minutes long.

1989 John Zorn – Carny (nominated by critic and Hear and Now presenter Tom Service): the American composer is best known for assembling a wide range of musical quotations and genres, juxtaposing Stockhausen and Bartok with cartoon music and boogie woogie – in this case all within the span of a short solo piano piece. It practically shifts genre every bar. The title is a reference to “carnival”.

1991 Howard Skempton – Lento (nominated by artist Tom Phillips): a completely tonal orchestral piece in the context of the English experimentalist tradition. Lento uses pre-composed chance arranged sequences of chords as the basic harmonic material. Skempton credited his teacher Cornelius Cardew with helping him find a radically simple musical language and has quoted Britten’s remark that “it s difficult to write simple music with character”.

1991 Brian Ferneyhough – Bone Alphabet (nominated by percussionist Steven Schick) recalls how a chance meeting with Brian Ferneyhough led to the commission of Bone Alphabet, the composer’s only piece for non-pitched instruments; and writer Paul Griffiths describes the work’s physicality and rhythmic complexity.

1992 Gerald Barry – Piano Quartet No.1 (nominated by composer Anna Meredith): described by Meredith as “bold and daring”, this one movement work built out of simple ideas, shows folk influences and uses some classical devices such as the canon, but all treated highly dramatically and juxtaposed on top of one another. It is a piece of extremes. There are elements of both minimalism and post-serialism. Irish composer Gerald (b 1952) studied with Stockhausen and Kagel.

1994 Heiner Goebbels – Surrogate Cities (nominated by Hear and Now presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsch): a suite exploring the complexities of the city and incorporating the Suite for Sampler and Orchestra. German composer and music theatre innovator Goebbels draws on sources as varied as classical music, jazz, and rock music. Surrogate Cities includes musical flashbacks and incorporates textual quotes from Paul Auster, Hugo Hamilton and Heiner Müller).

1999 Bernhard Lang – Differenz/Wiederholung 2 (nominated by composer Matthew Shlomowitz): a setting of texts for ensemble and three voices by Gilles Deleuze, William Burroughs and Christian Loidl, notable for its jagged sound world (the title translates as “Differences/Similarities”) and the composer’s use of repetition (though not in the minimalist manner).

(additional works, post 2000)

2000 Georg Friedrich Haas – In vain, for 24 instruments
Hass (born 1953) is an Austrian composer of “spectral music”, using computer analysis of sound and overtones as its source material, along with techniques such as microtonality, influenced by Ligeti. In vain, a work in one continuous music nearly 70 minutes long, was written as a protest against the rise of the far-right Freedom Party in the Austrain elections of 1999. It contrasts passages of more conventional harmony with music based on overtones, with the lights dimming as the basis of the tuning changes. A central aleatoric passage, routed in C major harmony, is performed in complete darkness, but gradually dissipates – perhaps an ideal state attained, but lost, the journey there ultimately “in vain”.

2005 Peter Lieberson – The Neruda Songs
A song cycle composed by the American composer Peter Lieberson for the soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson a year before her death from cancer. The five songs are settings of words by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. It was premiered in May 2005 in Los Angeles, with Hunt Lieberson as soloist. It’s been recoded on Nonesuch.

2013 Hans Abrahamsen – “let me tell you”
Abrahamsen’s first large scale piece for the human voice is a song cycle with orchestral accompaniment, based on Paul Griffith’s novel. The text is restricted to the words used by Ophelia in Hamlet but provides an extended character portrait. It is in three parts: past, present and future. The composer has said he intended to portray a young woman’s fragility and insecurity in the singing style. He cites influences ranging from Monteverdi to Rhianna. The piece was written with Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan in mind and premiered with her and the Berlin Philharmonic in December 2013. (There’s a video recording of the live event available from their website)

Here is The Guardian’s list of The Best Classical Works of the 21st Century, published in September 2019. (Rankings in brackets). https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/sep/12/best-classical-music-works-of-the-21st-century. 12 of the 25 are opera/music theatre. Eight of the composers are women, 17 men.

2000: Heiner Goebbels Hashirigaki. Music theatre (9)
2000: Kaija Saariaho L’Amour de Loin. Opera (6)
2003: Jonathan Harvey String Quartet No 4. With live electronics(8)
2003: Olga Neuwirth Lost Highway. Opera (13)
2003: Jennifer Walsh XXX Live Nude Girls. Opera (25)
2004: Max Richter The Blue Notebooks. Song cycle (21)
2007: David Lang Little Match Girl Passion. Choral (15)
2008: Harrison Birtwistle The Minotaur. Opera (3)
2008: Pascal Dusapin Passion. Opera (14)
2009: John Adams City Noir. Orchestral (24)
2009: Thomas Adès The Tempest. Opera (5)
2009: Louis Andriessen La Commedia. Opera (7)
2009: Unsuk Chin Cello Concerto. (12)
2011: Steve Reich WTC 9/11. String quartet, pre-recorded voices (17)
2012: Gerald Barry The Importance of Being Earnest. Opera. (11)
2012: George Benjamin Written on Skin. Opera (2)
2013: Hans Abrahamsen: Let Me Tell You. Orchestral song cycle (1)
2013: John Luther Adams Become Ocean. Orchestral (10)
2013: Caroline Shaw Partita. Vocal octet (20)
2014: Linda Catlin Smith Piano Quintet. Chamber (22)
2015: Cassandra Miller Duet for cello and orchestra. Concerto (19)
2016: James MacMillan Stabat Mater. Choral (23)
2016: Rebecca Saunders Skin. Soprano and 13 instruments (16)
2017: Brett Dean Hamlet. Opera (18)
2018: György Kurtág Fin de Partie. Opera. (4)