Musicological Observations 8: Essential listening from post-1945 New Music?

I was considering what I thought should be essential listening from the repertoire of post-1945 new music, to which anyone doing a music degree course which has a Western art music focus should be exposed during the course of their study. I want to be uncompromising and avoid easy populist, ‘democratic’, patronising choices (but look to major, difficult works for which exposure and explication at a university level might really make a difference. So here are six suggestions – I am looking for some others (I have lots of ideas, naturally, but am interested in those of others) that might make this up to ten suggestions. Please do post below. I am aware that there all the below choices are men, so would welcome various views on which works of women composers might also be included, according to the criteria I lay out.

Pierre Boulez, Pli selon pli (1957-62, rev. 1989-90)


Karlheinz Stockhausen, Kontakte (1958-60)


Luigi Nono, La fabbrica illuminata (1964)


Morton Feldman, Violin and Orchestra (1979) (only an excerpt is included above)


Brian Ferneyhough, Second String Quartet (1980)



Helmut Lachenmann, Allegro sostenuto (1987-88, rev. 1989-91).


13 Comments on “Musicological Observations 8: Essential listening from post-1945 New Music?”

  1. […] Musicological Observations 8: Essential listening from post-1945 New Music? (16/10/16) […]

  2. Julian says:

    hard to go past 4’33 i guess – and, conveniently, it’s quite short.

    maybe one of the early Glass pieces, like Music In Twelve Parts?

  3. Julian says:

    Cardew’s The Great Learning

  4. Grisey, Les Espaces acoustiques.

  5. Richard Wattenbarger says:

    Elliott Carter–but there’s so much of it! Perhaps the 2nd String Quartet, the Concerto for Orchestra, or the Double Concerto?

  6. Richard Whilds says:

    Can’t imagine post-war music without Ligeti.

  7. Maarten Beirens says:

    The listening assignments post-1945 (in addition to all the music we listen to in class) in my 20/21st century survey are:

    György Ligeti: Second string quartet
    Iannis Xenakis: Tetras
    Luciano Berio: Sinfonia
    Karlheinz Stockhausen: Gruppen
    Pierre Boulez: Le Marteau sans maître
    John Cage: String Quartet in four parts
    Helmut Lachenmann: First string quartet ‘Gran Torso’
    Elliott Carter: Night Fantasies
    Louis Andriessen: De Staat
    Kaija Saariaho: Lichtbogen
    Claude Vivier: Bouchara
    Luigi Nono: Fragmente, Stille, an Diotima
    Steve Reich: Piano Phase

    Obviously, many of these choices could be replaced by other works and I notice that some periods/styles are less well represented (new complexity is absent from this list, for one, and apparently it stops in the 1980s – what would be the essential pieces for the ’90s and ’00s?)
    Basically, rather than forming a canon of ‘essential’ listening, I am convinced that exposing the students to a wide selection of interesting and representative pieces is what matters most and then hope that they move on to discover more music by themselves.

  8. Paul Sutton says:

    Anthony Braxton, “Creative3 Orchestra Music 1976”

  9. Franklin Cox says:

    Ferneyhough’s Transit (or Time and Motion 3). Several works of Carter could easily make it: the Piano Concerto, Variations for Orchestra, Symphony of Three Orhcestras, First Quartet. Lachenmann’s Gran Torso. Maybe a work of Holliger’s such as Pneuma (or the Scardanelli Cycle?). Martino’s Concerto for Three Clarinets. Perhaps Babbitt’s Dylan Thomas Piece. Perhaps Ben Johnston’s Seventh String Quartet. Perhaps Feldman’s For Samuel Beckett and definitely Cage’s Williams Mix. Stockhausen Carré, or Kontrapunkte, or Punkte, possibly Mantra (if the class is patient). And Gesang der Jünglinge, of course–or a bit of Kontakte (and, for comparison, Sirius–passages in it are incredibly beautiful). Something by Barraqué–perhaps Concerto for clar,, vibes, and ensemble, or one movement from the Piano Sonata. More recent: Barrett’s Dark Ages and Mahnkopf’s Medusa.

    • Franklin Cox says:

      Nono sofferte onde serene

      Berio alleluja III? Points on a Curve to Find (or chemins II or Eindrücke, or possibly the Concerto for Two pianos and orchestra)

      Ligeti, first two movements of Requiem (San Francisco Polyphony for comparison).

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