Contemporary Violin Repertoire

Most students will have to face this issue at some point – the exam that demands something “in a contemporary style” or written after 1945 for example. Choosing such pieces can be surprisingly difficult. Many young players are not exposed to enough modern music early on (too much Teleman, not enough “Spectrum”) and find the language hard to come to terms with. Starting to learn a piece, which is often not
sight readable, can feel like climbing a mountain too (hence the photo). In addition it is also often hard to judge the difficulty level. So I thought we should start a list of pieces and peoples experiences of learning and performing them.

I will kick things off with my favourite (predictably for those that know me!): Kurtag Signs, Games and Messages. I have used these pieces with students of around Grade 8 standard, but some are very hard indeed – and in ways that you wouldn’t expect. But a selection of about three of these short pieces can cover many different violinistic and musical issues.

Anone else got any ideas?

5 thoughts on “Contemporary Violin Repertoire

  1. Check out Alfred Schnittke’s Sonatas… a piece of art just to look at and a lot of fun to play 🙂

  2. How about Skalkottas? He wrote a sonata for solo violin. Though earlier than 1945 it’s redolent of Schoenberg. Wrote lots for violin. Great stuff!

  3. A couple of interesting ideas. I haven’t performed either Schnittke or Skalkotas. I remember the Schnittke as really challenging, and I have loved listening to Skalkotas in the past – he is definitely on my list to investigate further.

    We need Rens to comment again now, with the list of pieces he performed recently.

  4. Ha! There we go.

    For an exam I think ‘Nocturne’ by Kaija Saariaho and ‘(re)Gaia’ by Joe Cutler both work very well. Saariaho’s piece because it’s beautiful and it uses a lot of extended techniques without getting really complicated. It’s in a style that’s very different to anything ‘not contemporary’ and at the same time it fits very well with almost anything else in the program.
    Cutler’s piece uses less extended techniques but is very virtuosic. It looks incredibly hard but when you get the feeling for it it’s actually alright. It’s especially nice to play it if you’re studying in Birmingham because Joe works there and he’s always interested in people playing his pieces!

    I also played ‘Raadsels’ by Louis Andriessen and ‘Toccatina’ by Helmut Lachenmann recently, these are both very interesting as well but maybe not so suitable for a 3rd-year recital.
    They both require more understanding from the listener to appreciate them. Andriessen’s piece has a nice sound world but it’s more based on classical playing and therefore maybe not ‘contemporary’ enough for an exam. Lachenmann’s piece is fascinating but too extreme for anyone in a jury who doesn’t know the piece really well. It’s full of very very extended techniques but the great thing is that musically it’s still really clever. It is an amazing piece, really tricky but well worth learning and playing!

    And now I’m getting too curious to see which pattern gets put next to my name…

  5. I should have updated this ages ago. There are many good pieces. I will assemble a proper list one day.

    In the meantime, if anyone is interested, I have been working with a composer, Will Handysides ( on a series of Study/Caprices to address some of the issues I raised here – introducing young players to a wide range of techniques, but also exploring them in the manner of a traditional (Rode/Kreutzer) Caprice. Early results looking promising…Let me know if you would like a look at any sketches, it would be interesting to get some feedback on whether they will work in the intended way.

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