I was recently asked to name some late 20th and 21st century piano pieces suitable to play for diploma exams. On examining the diploma syllabus I was struck by how little contemporary music was included, and by contemporary I mean music of today. I’m not talking about composers such as Charles Ives, John Cage, and Stockhausen, because whilst they are all great, they are not viewed as ‘Contemporary’.
I then realised how little contemporary piano music I knew! I was horrified, as I do really enjoy listening to new music. Contemporary music is vital if classical music is to survive and grow.
I decided to delve a little deeper and discover just what living composers have to offer in terms of piano music. I should say right here and now that this list is certainly not exhaustive – it is a work in progress:
Elliot Carter (1908 – 2012) is American. His music from 1950 onwards is typically atonal and rhythmically complex, indicated by the invention of the term metric modulation to describe the frequent, precise tempo changes found in his work. Here’s a selection of recent piano works: Retrouvailles (2000), Intermittences (2005), Tri -Tribute (2005-6)
Harrison Birtwistle (1934 -) is a British composer and his music is complex, written in a modernistic manner with a clear, distinctive voice. Piano works include: Harrison’s Clocks (1997-8), Ostinato with Melody (2000), and Saraband (2001).
Arvo Pärt (1935 -) is an Estonian composer. He works in a minimalist style that employs his own self-invented compositional technique, tintinnabuli. His music also takes inspiration from Gregorian chant. I find his music moving and strangely beautiful. Here are a few piano pieces to look out for: Fur Alina (1976) and For Anna Maria (2006).
Steve Reich (1936 – ) is an American composer who was one of the pioneering composers of minimal music. Reich’s style of composition influenced many other composers and musical groups. He has been described, in The Guardian, as one of “a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history”. Reich has written a lot of music for multiple pianos (notably recorded by the wonderful Piano Circus) but his work Piano Phase (for two pianos) has been performed and recorded on one piano.
John Tavener (1944 – 2013) is a British composer known for his religious, minimalist choral music. Taverner was influenced by Messiaen and Arvo Pärt (amongst others) and this is immediately obvious on hearing his works; there is a real spiritual quality present in his sound. Here are some piano pieces: Palin (1977), Ypakoe II (1997), Mandoodles (1982) and In Memory of Two Cats (1986).
John Zorn (1953 -) is an American composer who draws upon his long experience in classical, jazz, rock, punk, and klezmer music. A leader of the “downtown” music scene centered around the Lower East Side of New York City, Zorn feels most connected to the tradition of the avant garde . Piano works include the highly innovative Carny (1989).
Judith Weir (1954 -) is a British composer and her musical language is fairly conservative, with a “knack of making simple musical ideas appear freshly mysterious.” She is known for operatic and choral works but has also written some solo piano pieces: The King of France (1993) Roll Off the Ragged Rocks of Sin (1992) and I’ve turned the Page (2007),
David Lang (1957-) is an American composer and his music is described as post-minimalist or totalist. He recently ran a piano competition featuring the performance of one of his works via YouTube offering the winner a chance to go to New York to perform it. Here are a few of his piano works: Boy (2001), Broken Door (1997), Memory Pieces (1992-1997) and Wed (1992-1997).
Oliver Knussen (1952 – 2018) is British and is one of the most respected composers of his generation. I love his brittle, yet expressive style. His piano pieces are really worth exploring: Sonya’s Lullaby (1978), Variations for Piano (1989), Prayer’s Bell Sketch (1997) and Ophelia’s Last Dance (2010).
James MacMillan (1959 -) is a British composer whose music is infused with the spiritual and the political. He has written a whole myriad of piano works: Angel (1993), Birthday Present (1997), A cecilian Variation for JFK (1991), Piano Sonata (1985) and Walfrid, on his Arrival at the Gates of Paradise (2008).
Julian Anderson (1967 – ) is a highly respected British composer whose music is influenced by the folk music of Lithuanian, Polish and Romanian traditions, and also by the modality of Indian ragas. Piano works include the Piano Etudes Nos. 1-3 (1998).
Roxanna Panufnik (1968 -) is a British composer and is the daughter of composer and conductor Sir Andrzej Panufnik. She has written a wide range of pieces including opera, ballet, music theatre, choral works, chamber compositions and music for film and television which are regularly performed all over the world. Piano Piece: Second Home (2003).
Thomas Adès (1971- ) is a British composer. His complex yet appealing music exhibits a flair for drama, humor, and personal expression, and is notable for the creative use of instrumental color. He has written many piano works including: Still Sorrowing (1991-2), Traced Overhead (1995-6), Under Hamelin Hill (1992), and Darknesse Visible (1992).
Tansy Davies (1973 -) is a British composer. Her music is influenced by the worlds of the classical avant-garde, funk and experimental rock. Piano work: Loopholes and Lynchpins (2001).
Emily Hall (1978 -) is a British composer known for writing classical music, electronica and songs. Heavily influenced by folk music, Emily’s piano piece, No Currency was written in 2006.
Charlotte Bray (1982 -) is another British composer. She judged the 2012 Young Musician of the Year Competition. and has been described as an ‘outstanding talent’. She has won numerous prizes for her work. Her piano piece off the rails was written in 2005.
I realise that I have only merely scratched the surface and I will be returning to this vast topic soon. Meanwhile, if you have any other suggestions of either piano works or composers to add to this list then please let me know.
Here are a few YouTube clips of some of the mentioned works:
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.