Top 20 works of the 21st century?

Top 20 works of the 21st century?


norman lebrecht

September 13, 2019

The Guardian has a riff going with a list of 25 post-2000 works chosen by its music critics, and some 250 dissenting comments. I’d agree with very few of the Guardian’s selections.

Here’s the Slipped Disc 20:

20 Nico Muhly, Two Boys (2011)

19 Missy Mazzoli, Breaking the Waves (2016)

18 Oded Zehavi, flute concerto (2017)

17 Peter Maxwell Davies 9th symphony (2012)

16 Jennifer Higdon, violin concerto (2008)

15 Salvatore Sciarrino, 7th string quartet (2000)

14 Arvo Pärt, 4th symphony (2008)

13 Salvatore Sciarrino, 7th string quartet (2000)

13 Thomas Ades: piano concerto (2018)

12 John Adams, Doctor Atomic (2005)

11 Harrison Birtwistle: The Minotaur (2008)

10 James MacMillan, 3rd symphony (2003)

9 Steve Reich, Daniel Variations (2006)

8 Hans Abrahmsen, let me tell you (2016)

7 Karlheinz Stockhausen: Sonntag aus Licht (2003)

6 Charles Wuorinen, Brokeback Mountain (2014)

5 Gyorgy Kurtag, Fin de partie (2018)

4 Miroslav Srnka, South Pole (2016)


3 Michel Van Der Aa, Sunken Garden (2012)

2 Donacha Dennehy, That The Night Come (2010)

1 John Luther Adams, Become Ocean (2013)



Because Adams’s piece is the most important orchestral work to address the crisis of life on earth. It will be performed so long as life remains on earth.


  • Dr Presume says:

    Wow, Sciarrino’s 7th quartet at number 15 AND at number 13 (tied with the Ades concerto)? 😉

    I’d put Stockhausen’s “Cosmic Pulses” near the top of any list, but also I’d look at some of the new material being uncovered/discovered by the Toccata Classics label, e.g. the symphonies of David Hackbridge Johnson (the 9th is a remarkable thing, for instance).

  • Will Duffay says:

    At least they’re talking about classical music again. So what would you put in there?

    I have no opinion, as I find pretty much all new music to be irrelevant or dull or horrible or all three.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    It is difficult to pass a judgement on 21st century works this early. If classical music tradition survives this century, I doubt many of these composers (including and especially Steve Reich) will be remembered for long. Then there were hundreds of composers in the classical period, but apart from Haydn and Mozart most of them are now forgotten. I hope the tradition continues, and more substantial composers will come through and the superficial will be forgotten.

  • SteelyTom says:

    Georg Friedrich Haas, In Vain

  • Abrahamsen – Drei Märchenbilder aus der Schneekönigin
    Adès – The Tempest
    Benjamin – Duet for Piano and Orchestra
    Berio – Sequenza 14 for Cello
    Birtwistle – Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano
    Carter – Instances for Chamber Orchestra
    Dalbavie – Palimpseste
    Eötvös – Die Tragödie des Teufels
    Gubaidulina – Glorious Percussion
    Hosokawa – Hanjo (班女)
    Ligeti – Song Cycle “Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel”
    Mansurian – Requiem
    Pärt – Salve regina for Choir and Organ
    Pintscher – Fantasy for Orchestra with Voices “With Lilies White”
    Previn – Clarinet Sonata
    Rihm – Concerto (Dithyrambe) for String Quartet and Orchestra
    Saariaho – Mirage for Soprano, Cello and Orchestra
    Tower – For Daniel for Piano Trio
    Wuorinen – Symphony 8 “Theologoumena”

  • Cassandra says:

    Seems a little early in the day, but bound to pull debate.

    If news is slow, create your own.

  • M2N2K says:

    Two outstanding orchestral pieces should make that list near the top: “Gospel according to the other Mary” by John Adams and “Inferno” by Thomas Ades.

  • BC says:

    There are a number of works by Oliver Knussen that deserve mention, as well!

  • Caranome says:

    All will be forgotten in 10 years. A better list would be top 25 unlistenable, bombastic, boring, irritating pieces of noise, er…classic music in the 21st Century.

  • Anton Bruckner says:

    It is very difficult to identify new works for home listening as they are so rarely performed or broadcast. These lists are therefore a delight. In 40 or 50 years we will know which of those works will survive…

  • Interesting, and pathetic, to compare this to works from the first 20 years of the 20th century:

    Igor Stravinsky: Petrushka, Firebird, Le Sacre du printemps

    Mahler: Symhonies 4-8 written between 1900 and 1906, plus Die Kindertotenlieder and Das Lied von der Erde

    Debussey: La Mer, Pelléas et Mélisande,

    Strauss: Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier

    Pucinni: Tosca, Madame Butterfly

    Bartok: first two string quartets, Blue Beard’s Castle

    Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé

    Schoenberg: Five Orchestral Pieces, Erwartung, Pierrot Lunaire

    Ives: Three Places in New England, Concord Sonata

    Scriabin: Poem of Ecstasy Op. 54

    Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 1, Violin Concerto No. 1, 1st Symphony.

    Rachmaninoff: second piano Concerto

    And so on. It makes us seem like a bunch of impostors. Now let the rationalizing begin…

    • Rafe says:

      Agreed that those are great works, but were they uniformly admired at the time they were first being heard and understood? Many commenters here have reacted in scorn and disgust at the list in the OP. Didn’t many listeners react in scorn and disgust to many of the works on your list? I’m not commenting here on the quality of the music then or now, only on the general tendency to reject the new and unfamiliar – I would say that hasn’t changed in a century.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        No. Almost all of these pieces from the early 20th century were widely known and performed from the date of their composition. Audiences soon learned to love them. It is a romantic conceit that the greatness of the composition is only discovered by posterity.

    • M2N2K says:

      This certainly is a very impressive list. For a fair comparison, we would have to know how many and which ones of these works were considered masterpieces in September of 1919.

    • Caranome says:

      Precisely. And you’ve got guys like John Cage, who should be arrested for fraud but instead gets accolades from academics, “artists”, critics for blah blah blah -isms…Check out this masterpiece. I pity and laugh at those who sit thru this crap and clap.

    • PHF says:

      Yes, because all of these works were very well received at that time.

      Reactionary listener: checked.

    • Pauker says:

      Ooppsie… That’s almost embarrassing.

    • Nick says:

      A great list!

    • John Borstlap says:

      Indeed. But that period (in music, that is) was extraordinary on all accounts, and cannot be compared with any other shortish period in music history. The classical tradition had just loosened its grip on composers but they all had a thorough grounding in it, so that their instincts were formed but free to take flight. It was the last highlight of the art form, with an afterglow in Bartok, Shostakovich, Britten, and a host of exiled Jewish composers in England and the USA like Hans Gal, Ernst Toch, etc. as researched by Michael Haas:

      Even, exiled composers returned to that period in their imagination when they found themselves alienated from their ‘modern’ surroundings – knowing that it was there where wonderful resources could be found, entirely ignored and rejected by postwar modernism, as Haas showed in this fascinating essay:

    • Jean says:

      Sibelius #4

    • BrianB says:

      And you didn’t even mention Sibelius symphonies 2 through 5; Vaughan Williams first two; Elgar’s two symphonies (not to mention Cockaigne and the Cello Concerto); Nielsen 2 through 4; Szymanowski’s 2-3. And that’s just symphonies. And add Strauss’ Frau ohne Schatten and Puccini’s Fanciulla and Trittico.
      Makes us look pathetic today. De-evolution is a very real concept.

    • cornbear says:

      We could also consider the first twenty years of the 18th Century: Beethoven Symphonies 1-8, …

  • Esther Cavett says:

    I would nominate Howard Skempton’s 2010 composition :

    “Only the Sound Remains “for viola and chamber ensemble “

  • kaa says:

    Many great choices in your list but sorry that you did not choose Jonny Greenwood’s music for the movie “There will be Blood” I heard it again as a suite at Le Poisson Rouge and it was terrificOne of my favorites

    • V.Lind says:

      It’s pretty good. I assume the Brokeback Mountain referred to is the opera (bits of which I have heard and loathed) — the soundtrack is rubbish as a concert piece, certainly not in the class of here Will Be Blood.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Lists of ‘top this or that’ are something from the more naive strata of American culture, where such indications liberate people from judging for themselves. A consensus only builds-up after many years and after many reality tests – in music: performances within the context of a performance culture.

    • SoCal Peter says:

      I agree — but such lists can also be fun, as long as we don’t take them too seriously. The problem I see with a consensus developing with respect to music of our time is that so many pieces are never heard after their (commissioned) premieres. Many may deserve that fate, but undoubtedly many suffer premature oblivion, until some 22nd century musicologist (assuming civilization still exists) rediscovers the Jan Dismas Zelenka of the early 21st century…

  • muslit says:

    Wuorinen’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’? LOL….Wyoming in Vienna.

  • muslit says:

    This list only demonstrates the decline of classical music. Pace Kurtag.

  • muslit says:

    If one stopped following new currents in classical music – meaning anything in the 21st century – I don’t think their life would be deprived of much.

  • muslit says:

    Think of the first 20 years of the previous 5 centuries, and this list will make you feel very sad.

  • Jean says:

    Let me add a few (in no particular order):

    Kaija Saariaho: Orion (2002)
    Einojuhani Rautavaara: Cello Concerto No. 2 “Towards the Horizon” (2008)
    Einojuhani Rautavaara: Adagio celeste (2000)
    Magnus Lindberg: Clarinet Concerto (2001)
    Magnus Lindberg: Seht die Sonne (2007)
    Esa-Pekka Salonen: Violin Concerto (2009)
    Peteris Vasks: Symphony No. 3 (2005)
    Erkki-Sven Tüür: Symphony No. 4 “Magma” (2002)
    Erkki-Sven Tüür: Symphony No. 9 “Mythos” (2017)
    Kalevi Aho: Symphony No. 12 (2002)
    Krzysztof Penderecki: Piano Concerto (2002/2007)
    Wojciech Kilar: Ricordanza (2005)
    Elliott Carter: Cello Concerto (2000)
    Henri Dutilleux: Sur le même accord (2003)
    Ned Rorem: Cello Concerto (2002)
    Hans Werner Henze: Phaedra (2007)
    Sofia Gubaidulina: Johannes-Passion (2000)
    Arvo Pärt: Da pacem, Domine (2004)
    Aulis Sallinen: Symphony No. 8 (2001)
    Pehr Henrik Nordgren: Symphony No. 6 (2000)
    Pehr Henrik Nordgren: Symphony No. 7 (2003)
    Pehr Henrik Nordgren: Symphony No. 8 (2006)
    John Tavener: Lament for Jerusalem (2002)
    Michael Daugherty: The Gospel According to Sister Aimée (2012)
    Anders Hillborg: Eleven Gates (2006)
    Mark-Anthony Turnage: Anna Nicole (2011)

    I am sure I missed a few (didn’t either have time to listen them through…)

    • SoCal Peter says:

      Ah… it is the proliferation of these lists — yours, Andrew Powell’s, Joel Stein’s, and the like — that demonstrate the value of such lists: not to establish some contest winners, but to prompt one to listen to new works and discover new musical pleasures. Your list contains works (e.g., Rorem or Tavener) that might please, say, Herr Doktor with his preference for tonal works; and all of them are likely to contain at least a few works that surely belie Sorin’s blanket dismissal of “all the above-mentioned works”.

    • Mathias Broucek says:

      Good list. I was surprised not to see the Lindberg Clarinet Concerto before now

  • sorin says:

    All the above-mentioned works are pieces of shit , that is in the best case.

  • M McAlpine says:

    I haven’t heard any of these works. I’ve a feeling that might be a blessing!

  • Bone says:

    “Become Ocean” is #1 because of its political message, not because of musical quality? This is your blog, NL, but certainly you missed the mark on this one.
    Love your #8 choice, though.

  • Herr Doktor says:

    Most new music that I’ve heard does not merit a second listen. I’ll also be upfront that I only respond to tonal music, so anything 12-tone is simply never going to reach me in any sort of favorable way.

    That said, there are 2 new works I’ve heard in this century that I thought were rather special:

    1) John Harbison’s Requiem, premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink. What an interesting and engaging work. I found myself really drawn into it, and I wanted to hear it again live (but so far have not had the chance). It was recorded recently but I have not yet listened to the recording. Regardless, it was impressive and seemed to have its own voice and not be derivative. In a world with many Requiems, this one seemed to have something original to say and was genuinely affecting.

    2) Michael Gandolfi’s organ concerto, “Ascending Light.” This was also premiered by the BSO conducted by Andris Nelsons, and it was both brilliant and devastating. In my entire life, I have never heard such a thunderous response from the audience to any premiere – the audience was overwhelmed and responded accordingly. Gandolfi wrote “Ascending Light” in commemoriation of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. It’s very powerful, soulful, and not at all cliched as it could have been. It deserves to be played and re-played. Some critics might consider suspect any new work that receives such an overwhelmingly favorable response from an audience. I can only speak for myself – I thought it was astonishing and it moved me. Gandolfi hit this one out of the park.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    A lot of new music is really atmospheric film music, IMO. That medium has influenced so much of what passes for new compositions. Then there is sonic art. All of it influenced very strongly by technology. You could say that the technology of musical instruments itself influenced the way music has been composed over the centuries – especially the 19th. But electronic and computer technology has moved beyond the acoustic to the experimental; a lot of it for its own sake. Much of that arid experimentalism has been left in the dustbin of history, where it rightly belongs. But cinema is influencing the music of the ‘concert hall’ these days; fragmented, atmospheric, dramatic, evocative and so on, but lacking the architectural formulations and narrative arc/coherence (ironically) of music from an earlier time. This is just my own opinion and response.

  • George says:

    What about the Berio Piano Sonata? Boulez Derive?

  • Greg Bottini says:

    I’m surprised there’s no mention of Michael Torke….

  • Joel A Stein says:

    My list includes only works I have heard live:

    Abrahamson-Let Me Tell You
    Ades-Piano Concerto
    Magnus Lindberg-Piano Concerto 2
    Haas-In Vain
    Part-Symphony 4
    Julia Wolfe-Fire in my Mouth
    David Lang-Little Match Girl Passion
    John Adams-Gospel According to the Other Mary
    John Luther Adams-Become Ocean
    Unsik Chin-Su
    Donatoni-Violin Concerto
    Widmann-Violin Concerto
    Stucky-Second Concerto for Orchestra
    Andrew Norman-Play
    Benjamin-Written on Skin
    Saariaho-Circle Map
    Sebastian Currier-Violin Concerto
    Brett Den-The Lost Art of Letter Writing

  • 32va says:

    A sadly oarochial Guardian list. Says more about The Guardian than it does about the state of classical music.

  • Peter says:

    Yes but does it have any decent tunes??

  • Kit King says:

    I’m very encouraged that we are having this discussion. Maybe a little concerned that a lot of the pieces are “significant” in concept but I suppose this is inevitable, times being what they are. All are worthy of our attention and the list does demonstrate the cultural shift away from Mittel-Europe.
    Let’s debate!

  • Putting political/environmental/whathaveyou considerations ahead of pure musical ones invalidates the entire list. It’s a cancer on all the arts.

  • Charles says:

    The fact that the best large-form (i.e., longer than 25 mins) purely symphonic work of the 21th century thus far, Andrew Norman’s PLAY, is not on either list comes close to invalidating both.

  • Some very fine works on this list. Two biiiiiiig omissions: George Benjamin, “Written on Skin,” and Peter Lieberson, “Neruda Songs.” And the best young American opera is certainly David T. Little’s “Dog Days.”