21st-century classical music

Periods and eras of
Western classical music
Medieval c. 500–1400
Renaissance c. 1400–1600
Common practice
Baroque c. 1600–1750
Classical c. 1730–1820
Romantic c. 1780–1910
Impressionist c. 1875–1925
Modern and contemporary
c. 1890–1975
20th century (1900–2000)
c. 1975–present
21st century (2000–present)

21st-century classical music is art music, in the contemporary classical tradition, that has been produced since the year 2000.

Some elements of the previous century have been retained, including postmodernism, polystylism and eclecticism, which seek to incorporate elements of all styles of music irrespective of whether these are "classical" or not—these efforts represent a slackening differentiation between the various musical genres. Important influences include rock, pop, jazz and the dance traditions associated with these. A return to tonaliy, after the atonaliy and serialism of the previous century, has thus generally taken hold. The combination of classical music and multimedia is another notable practice in the 21st century; the Internet, alongside its related technology, are important resources in this respect. Attitudes towards female composers are also changing.

Composition in the 21st century

Like the term 20th-century classical music, "21st-century classical music" does not refer to a historical style period in music—in the sense that Baroque and Romantic do—but rather to all art music produced since the year 2000. Musicologists generally say that we are in the contemporary music period—a term which covers art music written from around 1975[1] or 1945,[2] depending on the historian's perspective.


During the 20th century, composers started drawing on an ever wider range of sources for inspiration and developed a wide variety of techniques. Debussy became fascinated by the music of a Vietnamese theatre troupe and a Javanese gamelan ensemble and composers were increasingly influenced by the musics of other cultures; Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School developed the dodecaphonic system and serialism; Reich and Glass developed minimalism; Varèse, Stockhausen, and Xenakis helped pioneer electronic music; jazz and the popular music of the West became increasingly important—both as influences on art music and as genres of their own; La Monte Young experimented with performance art; John Cage applied the I Ching to his music; and music generally became more and more diverse in style as the century progressed.[3]

This trend has continued into the 21st century: in 2009 BBC Music Magazine asked 10 composers, mostly British, to discuss the latest trends in western classical music.[4] The consensus was that no particular style is favoured and that individuality is to be encouraged. The magazine interviewed Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Nyman, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Henri Dutilleux, John Adams, James MacMillan, Jonathan Harvey, Julian Anderson, John Tavener, and Roxanna Panufnik. The works of each of these composers represent different aspects of the music of this century but these composers all came to the same basic conclusion: music is too diverse to categorise or limit. In his interview with the magazine, Dutilleux argued that "there is only good or bad music, whether serious or popular". The music of the 21st century is mostly post-modernist, drawing on many different styles and open to a great many influences.[4] Yet it is still a struggle to encourage the public to listen to contemporary music;[5] indeed, this is true of Indian Classical Music, too.[6]

Art-forms of the 21st century

Important forms used in the previous century continue to be used and developed, including opera and choral music, the symphony and other orchestral forms, chamber music, and electronic music. Composers use a wide range of resources, including the internet and video installations in their work.


Opera continues to be developed. Karlheinz Stockhausen (died 2007), Judith Weir, John Adams, George Benjamin, James MacMillan, Einojuhani Rautavaara (died 2016), and Cristóbal Halffter have all made important contributions:

Chamber opera is an important type of opera developed in the mid-twentieth century. They use smaller scale forces than regular operas. Examples from the 21st century include Pauline by Tobin Stokes (libretto by Margaret Atwood), The Corridor by Harrison Birtwistle, El caballero de la triste figura by Tomás Marco and The Sound of a Voice by Philip Glass.

Song and choral music

Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls is a choral piece commemorating the victims of the 11 September 2001 attacks (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2003). Roxanna Panufnik's recent output includes The Song of Names and All Shall be Well.

Henri Dutilleux's last works (he died in 2013) include Correspondances and Le temps l'horloge, both of which are song cycles.

Orchestral works

Jonathan Harvey's Body Mandala (2006) and Speakings (2008),[9] Anna Clyne's Night Ferry, Elliott Carter's Three Illusions for Orchestra, Christopher Theofanidis' Rainbow Body, Peter Maxwell Davies's Eighth (2001), Ninth (2012), and Tenth (2013) Symphonies, and Per Nørgård's Seventh (2006) and Eighth (2011) Symphonies are just some of the important orchestral works produced this century.

Arvo Pärt's Symphony No. 4, Los Angeles is the first of his symphonies to be written post 1976 in his signature tintinnabuli style.[10]

Oliver Knussen's Violin Concerto, Op. 30, written for Pinchas Zukerman, premièred in 2003.[11]

Chamber and instrumental music

Elliott Carter (died 2012) has written a large body of music for chamber groups and soloist since 2000. These include Tintinnabulation for percussion sextet, Double Trio for trumpet, trombone, percussion, piano, violin and cello, a string trio, Hiyoku for two clarinets, as well as several new pieces in his Retracing and Figment series for soloists and Two Thoughts about the Piano. Karlheinz Stockhausen's last major work, the unfinished cycle of twenty-four compositions collectively titled Klang, is predominantly made up of chamber-music pieces.

Notable string quartets composed since 2000 include the quartet by Hanspeter Kyburz, the Sixth (2002), Seventh ("Espacio de silencio", 2007), Eighth ("Ausencias", 2013), and Ninth ("In memoriam Miguel de Cervantes", 2016) Quartets by Cristóbal Halffter, two numbered quartets—the Fifth (2006) and Sixth (2009)—by Brian Ferneyhough, as well as Dum transisset I–IV (2007), Exordium (2008), and Silentium (2014), and the series of ten Naxos Quartets (2001–07) by Peter Maxwell Davies. At his death in 2016, Davies also left an unfinished final String Quartet, Op. 338, of which only the first movement was completed. The German composer Wolfgang Rihm extended his list of string quartets, first with the Twelfth Quartet (2001), the brief Fetzen 2 (2002), and a Quartettstudie (2003–04), then with a revised version of String Quartet No. 11 (2010) and the Thirteenth Quartet (2011), as well as another short work, In Verbundenheit (2014). Austrian Georg Friedrich Haas has written a Third ("In iij. Noct.", 2003) and Fourth String Quartet (2003), and the Hungarian composer György Kurtág has also extended his series of (unnumbered) works for this medium, with Six Moments Musicaux (1999–2005), Hommage à Jacob Obrecht (2004–2005), and—in collaboration with György Kurtág junior, Zwiegespräch for string quartet and electronics (1999–2006).

Electronic music

Electronic, electroacoustic, and computer music, pioneered in the 20th century, continue to develop in the 21st century. One of the major figures in the early development of electronic music, Karlheinz Stockhausen, composed his last electronic works—Cosmic Pulses and eight further pieces derived from it—as hours 13 to 21 of his Klang cycle (2005–2007).

Mario Davidovsky has extended his series Synchronisms, which in live performance incorporate both acoustic instruments and electroacoustic sounds played from a tape. Other composers including Mason Bates, Jean-Claude Éloy, Rolf Gehlhaar, Jon Hassell, York Höller, Hanspeter Kyburz, Mesías Maiguashca, Philippe Manoury, and Gérard Pape are active is this field. Bates' The B-Sides is a symphony in five movements for electronica and orchestra and Hassell's music exploits unusual electronic manipulation of the trumpet sound.

Multimedia and music

Apart from film composers and Judith Weir, mentioned above, other composers have embraced the growing technological advances of the 21st century.

The work In Seven Days (2008), by Thomas Adès, was composed for a piano, an orchestra, and six video screens. The video segments were created by Tal Rosner, Adès's civil partner.[12] Polaris for orchestra and five video screens was released in 2011.[13]

In 2008, Tan Dun was commissioned by Google to compose Internet Symphony No. 1—"Eroica" to be performed collaboratively by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. This work used the internet to recruit orchestra members and the final result was compiled into a mashup video, which premiered worldwide on YouTube.[14]


Musical styles and influence

Post-modernism continues to exert an influence on composers in the 21st century.[15] Styles developed in the 20th century, such as minimalism (Michael Nyman, Philip Glass, Steve Reich), postminimalism (Louis Andriessen, John McGuire, Julia Wolfe, Pauline Oliveros, Gavin Bryars), New Complexity (Brian Ferneyhough, James Dillon) and New Simplicity (Wolfgang Rihm) continue to be developed.

Polystylism and musical eclecticism are growing trends in the 21st century.[4] They combine elements of diverse musical genres and compositional techniques, often alien to the composers' own culture, into a unified and coherent body of works. Composers have often started their musical career in one discipline and have later migrated to or embraced others, while retaining important elements from the former discipline. In some cases, a composer now labelled "classical" may have started out in another discipline. For example, a specific label for John Zorn's music is difficult to choose: he started out as a performance artist and moved through various genres including jazz, hardcore punk, film music, and classical, and often embraces Jewish musical elements. All of these diverse styles appear in his works.[16] Julian Anderson combines elements from many different musical genres and practices in his works. Elements of modernism, spectral music and electronic music are combined with elements of the folk music of Eastern Europe and the resulting works are often influenced by the modality of Indian ragas.[17] His large-scale Book of Hours for 20 players and live electronics premiered in 2005. Tansy Davies's music also fuses elements of pop and classical music. Prince and Iannis Xenakis are both major influences.[18] Kati Agócs' work for chorus and orchestra The Debrecen Passion (2015) surrounds settings of poetry by Szilárd Borbély[19] with mystical texts of Medieval Latin, Hungarian, and Georgian origin, as well as a Kabalistic prayer.[20]

Composers are influenced from around the world. For example, in 2002, La Monte Young, along with Marian Zazeela, and senior disciple Jung Hee Choi founded the Just Alap Raga Ensemble which performs Indian classical music of the Kirana Gharana and merges the traditions of Western and Hindustani classical music, Young applying his own compositional approach to traditional raga performance, form, and technique.[21]

Other composers have also drawn upon diverse cultural and religious influences. For example, John Tavener (died 2013) drew his inspiration from eastern mysticism and the music of the Orthodox Church[22] and James MacMillan is influenced by both traditional Scottish music and his own Roman Catholic faith.[23] In a more abstract manner, religious and mystical associations are also found in the works of Sofia Gubaidulina, a devout member of the Russian Orthodox church. The influence of electronic music, numerology, unusual instrumentation and improvisational techniques are also apparent.[24] Marxist songs serve as basic material for Konrad Boehmer in many works.[25] Roman Turovsky-Savchuk is influenced by his Ukrainian heritage and Baroque music. He composes for the lute, orpharion and torban, and is an advocate of musical historicism and has collaborated with Hans Kockelmans and the New York Bandura Ensemble led by Julian Kytasty .[26] Tan Dun, best known for his scores for the movies Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, attempts to connect Buddhist, Christian and other cultures in his works. His works often incorporate audiovisual elements[14]

Composers find inspiration from other sources, too. The music of John Luther Adams (an Alaskan environmentalist and no relation to the other John Adams discussed in this article) is informed by nature, especially that of his native Alaska. His Pulitzer Prize-winning symphony Become Ocean was inspired by climate change.[27] Frank's House by Andrew Norman tries to evoke the architecture of Frank Gehry's house in Santa Monica.[28]

Péter Eötvös employs a variety of timbres and sound-worlds within his music. Extended techniques such as over-pressure bowings coexist with lyrical folk songs and synthesized sounds.[29]

Female composers

Roxanna Panufnik, in the aforementioned interview with the BBC, says:

Attitudes towards women composers have changed during the past few decades. Even after women started getting careers, it took a while before they could find work as composers, but we got there in the end, thanks to role models such as Judith Weir, Nicola Lefanu [sic], and Thea Musgrave. Hip young things like Tansy Davies and Emily Hall will exert a great influence on the new music scene in the next ten years.[30]

Important female composers working in the 21st century (not already mentioned in this article) include Chaya Czernowin, Unsuk Chin, Jennifer Higdon, Liza Lim, Meredith Monk, Onutė Narbutaitė, Olga Neuwirth, Kaija Saariaho, Rebecca Saunders, Linda Catlin Smith, Joan Tower and Agata Zubel .

Other important composers active in the 21st century

Several important composers active in the 20th century have died in the early part of the 21st century. These include: Dutilleux, Maxwell Davies, Rautavaara, Stockhausen and Tavener (already mentioned); Maryanne Amacher, an installation artist and experimental composer; Milton Babbitt whose final works included songs, chamber music and Concerti for Orchestra (2004); Hans Werner Henze whose opera L'Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe was premièred in 2003 followed by Sebastian im Traum (2004) for large orchestra and the opera Phaedr (2007); Peter Lieberson whose Shing Kham for percussion and orchestra (2010–11) was finished by Oliver Knussen and Dejan Badnjar after his death; John McCabe whose final works include the seventh symphony (Labyrinth) and chamber music; Emmanuel Nunes whose La Main noire for 3 violas (2006–2007) was based on his opera Das Märchen; and Peter Sculthorpe whoseThoughts from Home for piano was intended to form part of the Gallipoli Symphony for Anzac Day (2015).

Those still active include:

Performance of 21st-century music

During the earlier part of the 20th century, new music was generally written for and performed by closed circles of musicians: Schoenberg founded the Society for Private Musical Performances a membership-only organization which deliberately kept out “sensation-seeking” members of the public, and other societies, such as the International Composers’ Guild founded by Varèse and championed by Carl Ruggles, were equally perceived as élitist.[31] In the latter half of the century, this started to change as composers again started to embrace a wider public.

In the 21st century, there are a number of musicians and groups whose primary purpose is the promotion of new music:


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