You might be wondering why we’re even asking such a question. Well, after World War II ended, the contemporary music world turned to a style called serialism. This was a direct move against romanticism; composers felt as if writing beautiful, traditional music was impossible after all the death and destruction. This is what people refer to as the era of modernism. Breaking with tradition was a daily occurrence. This unfortunately distanced the wider audience from beautiful contemporary music. Many people found it hard to enjoy or understand this new music composed by Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono and Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, to name a few.
Some people say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In our case, it’s in the ear of the listener. I would argue it depends on how you define beauty in music. For most people, beauty means having order and symmetry. Also, to adhere to natural phenomena such as the golden cut, symmetries like the perfect fifth and harmonies derived from the natural overtone spectrum, even the amount of bars and periods (2, 4, 8 and so on) to create harmony and balance. Beauty can, of course, also be attained by breaking these natural and traditional elements.
Before we move on, let’s take a look at the definition of art.
The word art is derived from the word ars which means technique in ancient Greek. It was used to describe the work of sculptors at that time, even though they were not considered great artists in the way we define them today. The word ars also has beauty as a connotation. But it was not until the 16th century and with the European Academies that the separation of fine and applied arts really took place. So for something to be considered art, it has to have a certain level or artistry or technical quality.
The following quote sums up what could be defined as great art or music in many ways.
“Supreme art is a traditional statement of certain heroic and religious truths, passed on from age to age, modified by individual genius, but never abandoned…”
~William Butler Yeats, Nobel Prize Winning Poet
So here’s a question: how much can you modify something, while others still see it as the work / version of an individual genius? I believe it is up to the subjective listener to decide. In other words, it’s in the ear of the listener.
And now, time for our beautiful contemporary music list
If you are new to contemporary classical music, this list will serve as a great introduction.
Alleluia (2011) for Choir SATB – Eric Whitacre
I have never met anyone who doesn’t agree this is beautiful. My daughter, who is 9 years old, came running from the other room when she heard me play it and asked me: what is this beautiful music? Enough said.
Type of beauty: Melodic and harmonic.
Also, what could be more beautiful than the human voice?
The composer has a very nice commentary explaining how this piece came into existence. You can check it out here.
Fratres (1977/1991) Version for strings and percussion – Arvo Pärt
Type of beauty: Melodic, harmonic and process beauty. Simple and crystal clear.
Lontano (1967) for orchestra – György Ligeti
Type of beauty: Harmonic, texture and atmospheric beauty. Uncommon use of orchestra which adds a dimension of tension and fragile beauty.
This one is a bit harder on the ears if you are a new fan of contemporary music.
Mouyayoum (1983-1985) for choir SATB – Anders Hillborg
Type of beauty: Atmospheric beauty.
Unusual and innovative use of choir. A real classic in the choir world.
Meditation #1 (1998) for piano – Anders Forslund
Type of beauty: Process and atmospheric beauty.
I wrote this for my grandmother’s funeral. Needless to say, it has a lot of emotion in it although it’s very tranquil. You can listen to it here.
These are just a few examples of contemporary music I consider essential. Let me know in the comments which piece you love and maybe add your own favorites.