Contemporary Music in Germany

A Guide by field notes Berlin

13 April, 2023 | Lisa Benjes

Zeitgenössische Musik in Deutschland


The infrastructure of contemporary music in Germany is remarkable for its complexity and diversity. Hardly any other country devotes such a vibrant and diverse panoply of concerts and festivals to contemporary music, ranging in scope from big international events in urban centres to small-scale workshops set up by local initiatives in rural areas (Gottstein, 2009).

This may be partly due to the fact that "contemporary music" is not a stable, strictly defined concept. Furthermore, the term does not point to a precisely demarcated aesthetic terrain. Rather, it seems to be characterised precisely by its inconsistency. The numerous related terms, some of which are used synonymously, show how wide the field is: Contemporary music, music of the 20th and 21st centuries, modern classical music, music of our time, avant-garde music and new music seem to include sub-genres such as newly composed chamber or orchestral music, sound art, music theatre and opera, electronic and electro-acoustic music, improvised music and Echzeitmusik – just to name a few. The scene has become increasingly inclusive, crossing over with other music genres, art forms and media (Fricke 2018). There has also been a deep exploration of new approaches to trans-traditional music that evade the distinction between so-called serious music and popular music.

Independent Scene

The lion's share of the contemporary music landscape in Germany is made up of different players from the independent scene. The independent music scene gradually burgeoned from the 1970s onwards and was particularly committed to early and/or new music (Flender).

Concert halls, orchestras, and opera houses, including their infrastructure and staff, have long since ceased to be the substrate of new or contemporary music. On the contrary, it is the independent ensembles and concert organisers – with their complex structural foundation and network of the most diverse events, venues and sponsors that have developed into the breeding ground of contemporary music culture in the 21st century, which is growing steadily. As the real innovative force of the 20th/21st century, the independent scene has placed a contemporary model alongside the bourgeois model of music culture with its inherent flexibility, creativity and openness that have given older structures the stamp of the museum (Nauck 2016). The scene does not insist on a status quo, instead constantly driving the genre forward by taking an experimental, risk-taking approach to the meaning and possibilities of art music today. It takes on issues of social change and prompts transformative processes on diversity, sustainability or digitalisation within its own structures and in society – long before the established concert scene even became aware of these issues.

The independent scene includes professional ensembles, orchestras, festivals, concert organisers and associations that create events autonomously (Koalition der Freien Szene 2023) on the basis of certain objectives, convictions and visions. It operates independently, often in contrast to the working methods and programming of the established scene (Martin Rempe 2019).

The supposed freedom that the independent scene’s organisations have comes at a high price. Their funding model is often fragile. Without institutional funding or other income streams allowing for longer-term planning, they bear their financial risks under their own steam. Their annual budget is made up of project funding limited to specific individual projects over a certain timeframe, ticket sales from their own events, and concert engagements. In rare cases, independent organisations can fall back on scarce sums of structural or basic funding (FREO e. V. 2023). Acquiring project funding is thus part of the core business of actors in the independent scene. The requirement to constantly come up with new concepts for project applications is not only strenuous, but also stands in the way of sustainable, lasting artistic development.


The majority of Germany's top international ensembles and orchestras in the field of contemporary music are part of the independent scene (FREO e. V. 2023). Far more than 90 percent of Germany’s (world) premieres of contemporary music are given by independent specialist ensembles based in Germany.

A major driving force is the many independent ensembles that specialise in a 20th/21st-century repertoire. There are now hundreds of independent ensembles and orchestras of different sizes with variable instrumentation and each with their own repertoire focus. There are more than 40 contemporary music ensembles in Berlin alone (Schick und Lorber 2018). Formations often change so fluidly and dynamically that they are impossible to count. The information on the number of ensembles varies accordingly. The Music Information Centre (, for example, counts 178 ensembles specialising in new music in its database ( 2023).

What is certain, however, is that they play an indispensable and exemplary role in the concert world, performing rare pieces and premiering new ones, working closely together with living composers, professionalising and imparting new playing techniques, and finding experimental ways to interact with other genres, media or other art forms (Forster 2023). Ensembles organise their own concert series and festivals and often engage in educating children and youths. For most of them, supporting young composers and professionalising the next generation of musicians is a high priority (Martin Rempe 2019).

Quite often, they adopt the legal status of a civil-law partnership (Gesellschaft des bürgerlichen Rechts, GbR). This is an eminently practical arrangement; it has few formal restrictions, and is inexpensive and bureaucratically simple to handle. There are also artistic considerations, as each shareholder has wide-ranging powers of co-determination. On the other hand, this legal status is fraught with risks, since a partnership’s members are personally liable for its total debts. The shareholders may include either all ensemble members (as with Concerto Köln and the Akademie für Alte Musik in Berlin, for example) or several of its leading musicians ( 2023).

In contrast to employed musicians in orchestras regulated under collective agreements (tarifvertragliche Orchester), independent formations are characterised by the entrepreneurial responsibility and participation in artistic leadership and strategic planning. The entrepreneurial and often grassroots, democratic organisational model of independent ensembles enables the creative and energetic potential of the musicians, promoting motivation, good performance, quality, creativity and flexibility (Martin Rempe 2019).

In 2016, FREO e. V. was founded as a non-profit association to represent the interests of professional ensembles and orchestras supported by freelance musicians. 

   Festivals and Concert Series

In addition to ensembles, there are smaller-scale festivals and concert series organised in just about every German city. Many of them survive on the unflagging commitment of their organisers and the creative use of what are often shoestring budgets (Gottstein 2009).

These events range from Heroines of Sound in Berlin, a festival that focuses on female pioneers in electronic music, which works in collaboration with the guest performances house HAU – Hebbel am Ufer and Radialsystem; to Festival für Immaterielle Kunst in Hamburg that focuses on the intersection of music and performance, in cooperation with the Elbphilarmonie; to Frequenz Festival in Kiel that ties together the scenes of Germany and the Nordic Countries. Many more examples like these can be found throughout Germany.

There is also a growing number of umbrella festivals that showcase various activities from the independent scene such as the Month of Contemporary Music in Berlin; Berlin’s biennale for music theatre, BAM! Festival; Spark – Music Theatre in Cologne; or ‘blurred edges’ for contemporary and experimental music in Hamburg. Via the common framework, a wide range of activities can be communicated and showcased to a broader public.

Independent concert series such as Unerhörte Musik, Kontraklang, and biegungen im ausland often form the backbone of the scene since they offer performance opportunities for independent artists and groups.

   Venues and Guest Performance Houses (Gastspielhäuser)

Somewhat as a hybrid form are houses for guest performances (Gastspielhäuser). They offer a professional infrastructure for the production and presentation of events of national and international guest performances. They usually receive institutional funding by their respective federal state. Those funds, however, are generally only intended for the infrastructure and not for the artistic programme. Exceptions apply to co-productions. All other guest performances bring their own funds. 

These venues play an increasingly important role in the field of the independent scene since they offer a professional infrastructure for the production and presentation of events.


There is not a single concert house in Germany dedicated exclusively to contemporary music. In the publicly funded symphony orchestras, new and contemporary music tends to take place as short intermissions between “more easily digestible repertoire” or isolated from the rest of the programming in specific concert series or festivals.

Of the 83 publicly funded opera houses in Germany, some integrate their own productions, commissions or the development of independent events and competitions in their programming (e.g. the Deutsche Oper in Berlin) (Fricke 2018).


In Berlin, there are two festivals carried out by institutions and therefore benefit from institutional funding structure and long-term planning: MaerzMusik and Musikfest. MaerzMusik is committed to contemporary music and cross-genre experimentation whereas Musikfest foregrounds classical and modern music. Both figure under the umbrella of the Berliner Festspiele, an institution that hosts a multitude of festivals, exhibitions and individual events. 

The capital of Saxony has also been funding a festival of its own since 1987. The Dresden Contemporary Music Festival (Dresdner Tage der zeitgenössischen Musik) is carried out by Dresden Center for Contemporary Music, which is now part of the European Centre for the Artsin Hellerau. The Munich Biennale, founded by Hans Werner Henze in 1988, focuses entirely on contemporary music theatre and opera. The festival is run independently and supported by the Department of Arts and Culture/City of Munich. ACHT BRÜCKEN in Cologne is the successor to the Cologne Musiktriennale presenting a mixed programme with an emphasis on contemporary music. Founded in 1978, Musik der Jahrhunderte (MDJ) is now one of the most important international promoters and producers of contemporary music in Europe and has also been hosting the annual ECLAT Festival Neue Musik Stuttgart since 1980. The festival takes a transdisciplinary approach to contemporary music and gives the younger generation of aspiring artists an audience.

Public Radio

The role of public radio should not be underestimated in Germany’s contemporary music landscape. Virtually every broadcaster has a department for new music. They follow a cultural and educational policy, providing a very wide range of information on contemporary music several times a week. Some of the broadcasters’ contemporary music departments have developed and launched their own series of broadcasts, setting programming and educational standards for the dissemination of contemporary music and reaching impressively large and diverse audiences (Fricke 2018).

   Formations (Orchestras, Choruses and Big Bands)

Most of the broadcasters have their own musical formations (orchestras, choruses, and in some cases big bands), some of which are committed to the music of our time, such as the SWR Symphonieorchester, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, and BR-Symphonieorchester (Fricke 2018).

   Experimental Studio

Since 1971, South-western Broadcasting Corporation (Südwestdeutscher Rundfunk or SWR) in Freiburg has operated its own Experimental Studio. In addition to researching new musical processes and producing musical works, a major area of activity for the Experimental Studio is bringing performances to the stage.

   Festivals and Concert Series

Many of the broadcasters maintain what are often considered the most important and established festivals. 

Founded in 1921 and organised by SWR, the annual Donaueschingen Festival (Donaueschinger Musiktage) is not only the world’s oldest festival of contemporary music but also still among the most prestigious in the world. The Witten Days for New Chamber Music (Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik) was founded in 1969 under the patronage of Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR). cresc…, a biannual festival of modern music in the Rhine-Main region running since 2011, is organised by Ensemble Modern and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony (hr-Sinfonieorchester) together with other partners from the region. Bavarians Radio (BR) maintains a concert series Musica Viva series (since 1948) and West German Radio (WDR) Musik der Zeit (since 1951), both feature premieres of newly commissioned works (Fricke 2018).

Ultraschall Berlin is a festival for new music jointly organised by Deutschlandfunk Kultur and Radio Berlin-Brandenburg (rbb) since 1998 (Fricke 2018). It is one of the capital’s two big festivals that usually takes place at rbb’s own broadcasting centre, Haus des Rundfunks, as well as other venues all over the city.


Established in 1922, the German chapter of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) – the Gesellschaft für Neue Musik (GNM) – is the oldest and largest umbrella organisation for all persons and groups interested in contemporary music in Germany. In various cities and regions, the GNM has so-called regional groups actively involved in promoting contemporary music in concerts and discursive events. The German Society for Electro-Acoustic Music (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Elektroakustische Musik, or DEGEM) gathers members from the field of electronic and electro-acoustic music (Fricke 2018). 

There are many locally and regionally active associations, while others, such as the GNM, are mainly nation-wide or international in scope. Their scope of activities varies substantially. Some of them are active in cultural policy (FREO), others concentrate on producing concerts and developing of talks, panels, or publications (bgnm, ZMB), and still others fund and promote contemporary music in their regions (inm).

All in all, even though the number of associations and initiatives involved with contemporary music in Germany is very large and spread over many cities and regions (Fricke 2018), there is still a big lack of overarching organisation and networking among the individual initiatives. 


Public cultural funding provides financial support for non-profit, non-commercial, artistic and/or cultural projects. The autonomy of artistic work in Germany is considered a major asset and is established in the constitution: “Art and science, research and teaching are unrestricted” (Art. 5 Absatz 3 GG).

Unlike in many other countries, the funding of art and culture in Germany is primarily a matter for the federal states and communalities (cultural sovereignty of the states). Cultural funding is one of the few policy fields that can be shaped by the respective levels of local, state and federal government largely sovereignly and according to their own objectives (Wissenschaftliche Dienste des Deutschen Bundestages 2006).

The responsibility for the promotion of culture is anchored in the respective state constitutions. In Berlin, for example, Article 20 of the constitution states: “The Land shall protect and promote cultural life.” From a legal point of view, however, this does not imply an obligation to fund culture. Due to a lack of ascertainment, this is merely voluntary. NRW has its own cultural funding law, and in Berlin, the State Music Council is campaigning for one. This campaign also includes stipulations on integrating standards of sustainability in cultural policy.

   Cultural Funding by the Federal Government 

Federal cultural funding focuses on measures of national and international scope. The federal government contributes around 2.3 billion euros, covering 17 percent of the total expenditure on arts and culture. Germany does not have a Ministry of Culture but rather a Commissioner for Culture and the Media (Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien), who has a broad range of responsibilities:

  • to continuously develop and improve the legal framework for the cultural and media sector through federal legislation
  • to promote cultural institutions and projects of national importance, to ensure the cultural representation of the state as a whole in the federal capital Berlin
  • to represent Germany's cultural and media policy interests in various international bodies
  • to promote nationally significant memorials to the memory of the victims of the Nazi reign of terror
  • to commemorate injustice in the former GDR in cooperation with memorials and institutions (BKM 2023b).

   Funding System: Institutional Funding and Project Funding

One usually distinguishes between artist and project funding on the one hand and institutional funding on the other. The independent scene draws on project funding, which is used to support one-off artistic projects. In order to give independent projects some planning security, structural funding (Strukturforderung) and venue funding (Spielstättenförderung) support the infrastructural development of more established organisations of the independent scene. Institutional funding is aimed at long-term, government-related institutions and covers infrastructure or ongoing activities (e.g. museums, theatres, associations, foundations) (Häufige Fragen zur Förderung - Kulturstiftung des Bundes 2023).

The independent scene is still far from being given the status it deserves in the public perception, seen by many as an unprofessional adjunct to the big institutions and established festivals, something often reflected in the unequal distribution of funding between institutions and the independent scene.

As one example, the Senate Department for Culture and Europe (Senatsverwaltung für Kultur und Europa) in Berlin supports the cultural landscape with around 600 million euros per year (as of 2020). About 95% of the budget goes to more than 70 permanently funded cultural institutions and only about 5% to actors and organisations of the independent scene through individual and project funding, including the Capital Culture Fund (Hauptstadtkulturfonds) (Senatsverwaltung für Kultur und Europa 2023).

Freie Szene / Institutionen
© Freie Szene / Institutionen


In the exposition of the structures of the contemporary music scene in Germany, it has become clear that in the field of the music of today, the independent scene occupies a particularly important position. In contrast to other art forms such as theatre or other genres such as classical music, the share of institutions in regards to new productions and catalysts is negligible in the field of contemporary music. Public radio stations, on the other hand, are largely dedicated to contemporary music as part of their cultural mandate, playing a more important role in its dissemination and presentation. In accordance with the enormous importance of the independent scene, the funding institutions as its counterpart also have an influence on the production of contemporary music that should not be underestimated.

Works Cited

BKM (2023b): Kunst- & Kulturförderung. Online verfügbar unter, zuletzt aktualisiert am 10.03.2023, zuletzt geprüft am 10.03.2023.

Flender, Reinhard David (Hg.): Freie Ensembles für Neue Musik in Deutschland. Eine Studie des Instituts für kulturelle Innovationsforschung an der Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hamburg. Institut für Kulturelle Innovationsforschung. Mainz, London, Berlin, Madrid, New York, NY, Paris, Prague, Tokyo, Toronto.

Forster, Meret (2023): Contemporary Music ensembles in Germany. An overview. Hg. v. Goethe-Institut. o.O. Online verfügbar unter, zuletzt geprüft am 08.02.2023.

FREO e.V. (2023): FREO - unser Mission Statement. Online verfügbar unter, zuletzt aktualisiert am 08.02.2023, zuletzt geprüft am 08.02.2023.

Fricke, Stefan (2018): Zeitgenössische Musik. Online verfügbar unter, zuletzt geprüft am 08.02.2023.

Gottstein, Björn (2009): Concert and Festival Scene. Experiencing Contemporary Music. Hg. v. Goethe-Institut. Goethe-Institut. o. O. Online verfügbar unter, zuletzt geprüft am 08.02.2023.

Häufige Fragen zur Förderung - Kulturstiftung des Bundes (2023). Online verfügbar unter, zuletzt aktualisiert am 08.02.2023, zuletzt geprüft am 08.02.2023.

Koalition der Freien Szene (Hg.) (2023): Die Koalition der Freien Szene. Online verfügbar unter, zuletzt aktualisiert am 08.02.2023, zuletzt geprüft am 08.02.2023.

Martin Rempe (2019): Die deutsche Orchesterlandschaft. Kulturförderung, Interessenorganisation und Arbeitsbedingungen seit 1900. Eine Studie zur Entstehung und Entwicklung der Orchesterlandschaft in Deutschland. Unter Mitarbeit von Andreas Bräunig, Sarah Heemann, Alexander Hollensteiner, Lena Krause, Tanja Ratzke, Tobias Rempe. Hg. v. FREO – Freie Ensembles und Orchester in Deutschland e.V. (2023): Ensembles für zeitgenössische Musik | Online verfügbar unter, zuletzt aktualisiert am 08.02.2023, zuletzt geprüft am 08.02.2023.

Nauck, Gisela (2016): Freie Szene. In: Positionen : Texte zur aktuellen Musik (109), S. 1–5.

Schick, Tobias; Lorber, Richard (2018): Independent Ensembles. Online verfügbar unter, zuletzt geprüft am 08.02.2023.

Senatsverwaltung für Kultur und Europa (2023): Berliner Kulturförderung (SenKult). Online verfügbar unter, zuletzt aktualisiert am 18.01.2023, zuletzt geprüft am 08.02.2023.

Wissenschaftliche Dienste des Deutschen Bundestages (2006): Formen und Instrumente der öffentlichen Kulturförderung in Deutschland einschließlich Hilfen der Europäischen Union. Wissenschaftliche Dienste des Deutschen Bundestages. Online verfügbar unter, zuletzt geprüft am 10.03.2023.