The festival owes its existence to the initiative of the Italian conductor Claudio Abbado. As music director of Vienna State Opera he convinced leading political and cultural representatives of the need to create an independent forum in Vienna for the music of the 20th century. The aim of the new festival, set up in 1988, was to re-vitalise Vienna’s traditional musical scene. In the dialectic betwee musical tradition and innovation, Wien Modern was conceived as an international platform for the latest musical trends, presenting major works of new music to Vienna’s public.
With this main idea in mind, Wien Modern focused between 1988 and 1995 on the presentation of leading composers of the 20th century. No less than 36 composers of different generations, cultural backgrounds and aesthetical concepts were invited to Vienna and showcased in portrait concerts, workshops and talks. The first years of Wien Modern have contributed to the festival's international reputation and have been decisive in establishing the musical avantgarde in Vienna’s music life.
Theme-related concerts marked the festival programme between 1996 and 1999. The titles of the festival «Foreign Worlds» (1996), «Voices.Words» (1997), «On the Fringe of Europe» (1998) and «Rites.Myths» (1999) highlighted different themes, which play a major role in the production of contemporary music. Wien Modern highlighted the influence of non-European music on the Western avantgarde, shed light on the treatment of the human voice in contemporary music and explored the existence of musical-aesthetical centres and peripheries in Europe.
The focus on theme-related questions has remained an essential aspect of Wien Modern’s artistic concept planning. For example, the production of electronic sound and its impact on New Music were highlighted in Wien Modern 2000. Since then, experimental electronic music has formed an essential part of the festival’s artistic profile. The integration of visual media in 2001 has opened the festival towards other arts: dance, performance, visual arts, film and video - as they interrelate with music - have become a vital part of Wien Modern. Wien Modern sees itself today as a forum for the rich diversity of contemporary music and a network to other media.
Lothar Knessl, Karsten Witt, Christoph Becher, Thomas Schäfer, Berno Odo Polzer and Matthias Lošek have shaped the festival's artistic profile since its foundation.