Sixty Postwar Pieces to Study

Recently, a couple of the undergraduate composers in the program at Westminster Choir College asked me for lists of postwar pieces to study. Given the vocal and choral emphasis in our program, I’ve compiled the list below to provide a different vantage point. Hence the emphasis on instrumental music and a preponderance of post-tonal composers that they might not encounter when learning their own recital repertoire. Given a different student population, composers like Jennifer Higdon, Christopher Theofanidis, and Donnacha Dennehy could just as likely appear on a listening list such as this.

And, of course, it is frustrating what one must leave out to keep a list manageable in size. Indeed, I’ve had to leave off a number of sentimental favorites. Note that I am not attempting to give them the “greatest hits” of the past sixty-five years. Instead I strove for a diversity of selections, both watershed masterworks and vibrantly interesting pieces that merit attention, even if they may not be the first ones that come to mind for the given composer. On a different day, we could come up with sixty different pieces: a composer must be prepared for a lifetime of listening, score study, and learning. Even after that, they must also be humbled by the fact that they will only get to a fraction of all the good stuff out there!

Let’s say that an undergraduate composer began working with this list or a similar one at the beginning of their junior year; listening to and, if possible, studying the score for one of these pieces every week. Between their own performance experiences, WCC’s theory and history courses, and this survey of recent works, by the time that they were ready to consider applying to graduate programs in their senior year, they would have a decent grounding in the repertoire.

1-    Adams, John C. Nixon in China (1987)

2-    Adams, John C. Chamber Symphony (1992)

3-    Adams, John Luther. Red Arc/Blue Veil (2002)

4-    Andriessen, Louis. La Passione (2002)

5-    Babbitt, Milton. Philomel (1964)

6-    Babbitt, Milton. Arie da Capo (1974)

7-    Berio, Luciano. Circles (1960)

8-    Birtwistle, Harrison. Secret Theatre (1984)

9-    Boulez, Pierre. Le marteau sans maître (rev. 1957)

10-  Boulez, Pierre. Répons (1984)

11-  Cage, John. Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1948)

12-  Cage, John. Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1958)

13-  Carter, Elliott. String Quartet No. 1 (1951)

14-  Carter, Elliott. String Quartet No. 5 (1995)

15- Chin, Unsuk. Akrostischen-Wortspiel (1993)

16- Crumb, George. Ancient Voices of Children (1970)

17- Czernowin, Chaya. String Quartet (1995)

18-  Davies, Peter Maxwell. Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969)

19-  Feldman, Morton. Rothko Chapel (1970)

20- Feldman, Morton. For Samuel Beckett (1987)

21-  Ferneyhough, Brian. Bone Alphabet (1991)

22- Ferneyhough, Brian. Terrain (1992)

23- Foss, Lukas. Echoi (1963)

24- Glass, Philip. Satyagraha (1980)

25- Grisey, Gérard. Les espaces acoustiques (1985)

26- Haas, Georg Friedrich. In Vain (2002)

27- Harrison, Lou. La Koro Sutro (1973)

28- Kurtág, György. Kafka-Fragmente (1986)

29- Kurtág, György. Stele (1994)

30- Knussen, Oliver. Where the Wild Things Are (1983)

31-  Lachenmann, Helmut. Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (1990)

32- Lang, David. Little Matchgirl Passion (2007)

33- Ligeti, Győrgy. Atmosphères (1961)

34- Ligeti, Győrgy. Violin Concerto (1993)

35- Lim, Liza. City of Falling Angels (2007)

36- Marshall, Ingram. September Canons (2003)

37- Messiaen. Olivier. Éclairs sur l’au-delà… (1991)

38- Monk, Meredith. Songs of Ascension (2008)

39- Nancarrow, Conlon. Three Canons for Ursula (1989)

40- Nono, Luigi. …sofferte onde serne… (1976)

41-  Pärt, Arvo. Fratres (1976)

42- Penderecki, Krzysztof. Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960)

43- Reich, Steve. Music for Eighteen Musicians (1976)

44- Reich, Steve. Different Trains (1988)

45- Riley, Terry. In C (1964)

46- Saariaho, Kaija. L’amour de loin (2000)

47- Scelsi, Giacinto. Prânam 2 (1973)

48- Sciarrino, Salvatore. Vento D’Ombra (2005)

49- Schoenberg, A Survivor from Warsaw (1947)

50- Shapey, Ralph. Millenium Designs (2000)

51-  Stravinsky, Igor. Variations (Aldous Huxley in Memoriam) (1964)

52- Stockhausen, Karlheinz, Kontakte (1960)

53- Takemitsu, Tōru. From me flows what you call Time (1990)

54- Turnage, Mark-Anthony. Blood on the Floor (1996)

55- Xenakis, Iannis. Pléïades (1978)

56- Xenakis, Iannis. Tetras (1983)

57- Varèse, Edgard. Poème électronique (1958)

58- Wolpe, Stefan. Quartet for Trumpet, Tenor Saxophone, Piano, & Percussion (1954)

59- Wuorinen, Charles. A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky (1975)

60- Young, LaMonte. The Well-Tuned Piano (1964-present)

8 thoughts on “Sixty Postwar Pieces to Study”
  1. I noticed this list is extremely tilted toward men despite your stated preference for diversity, and I would argue that this unconscious bias makes you miss some really important women, like Pauline Oliveros, Shulamit Ran, Ellen Taffe Zwilich, Elena Firsova, Zeena Parkins, Joanna Newsom, etc. Especially Sofia Gubaidulina’s Offertorium, Garden of Joys and Sorrows, and In Croce are played all over the U.S. Then there’s race: Duke Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert? Plus you never mentioned genre criteria. Obviously lists like this will never please everyone, and I very much appreciate reading your thoughts on the matter.

  2. A very good list and one similar to the one I had for my contemporary music class years back (which was also organized as a matrix by performing force).

    Today, I’d substitute Sinfonia for Circles, Rituel for Le marteau, Symphonia for String Quartet #5, Image, Reflection, Shadow for Eight Songs for a Mad King, Transit for Bone Alphabet, Tabula Rasa for Fratres, Utrenja for Threnody to the Victims, Threni for Variations (A.H.), and Deserts for Poeme electronique.

    I’d add Shostakovich’s Symphony #14, Lutoslawski’s Chantefleurs et Chantefables, Schnittke’s Faust Cantata, Gubaidulina’s Rider on the White Horse, Coates’s Symphony #15, Artyomov’s Threshold of Bright World, and Hoeller’s Spheres.

  3. Oh, THAT war. We need to come up with some other label for the 2nd half of the 20th Century already. Don’t get me wrong, this is a great list of music that *everyone* should know, certainly every musician. I was kind of excited by the headline, thinking maybe there was a great new pool of new music that I should get to know that had somehow passed me by since the most recent war. Some would say the most recent war is still going on in Afghanistan. I agree, but since the war in Iraq is “over,” and some people separate the two, I was hoping that is what the headline meant. Also, there have been and still are wars in other countries since WWII, including the homelands of some of these composers.

    I don’t mean to rant about it, I was simply mislead by the headline.

  4. Good list.

    But I can’t help but weep inwardly, just a little, at how familiar this list is…to think how much we are all listening to and talking about the same stuff with our students. I know, I know, “masterworks they should know”, yada, yada. But I worry we are making young artist into pallbearers for composers of the past.

  5. This is great. I would have loved a list like this when I started exploring postwar music. In fact, much to my surprise, there are a few I haven’t yet heard. Thanks for sharing.

  6. OMG SO much of this music is crap. Well, you DID put a self imposed number of 60 …

  7. This kind of thing is of course impossible to please everyone, but in general not a bad list! My only complaints would be that for Glass “Einstein on the Beach” is a much better and more important piece than “Satyagraha” and also Reich has much better pieces than “Different Trains”. I would also scrap a Fernyhough or a Xenakis piece to make room for Earl Brown’s string quartet.

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