Founded with the intent of promoting new and unusual compositions, the ensemble's roots actually go back to 1973-1974, when the German Youth Orchestra was formed. From this group there soon emerged offshoot ensembles for strings, woodwinds, and various other instrumental factions. In 1979 percussionist Hans-Peter Gluckner took the initiative to begin assembling yet another group from the orchestra, which would become known as the Ensemble Modern of the German Youth Philharmonic.
The aforementioned 1980 inaugural concert, which featured works by Schönberg, Webern, Spahlinger, Goldmann, and Schnebel, was broadcast over German radio, giving the new group a measure of overnight recognition. The Ensemble soon developed a schedule of about 100 concerts per year and would perform at many of the world's major concert venues, including Lincoln Center, the Salzburg Festival, the Holland Festival (Amsterdam), and the Festival d'Automne (Paris). Since 1985 it has been based in Frankfurt and has regularly performed at the Alte Oper concert hall.
The Ensemble eventually began making recordings for various labels, including RCA, BMG, and Rykodisc. Its 1995 recording of Frank Zappa's Yellow Shark achieved great success, and was followed by another Zappa disc, as well as a highly acclaimed 1999 version of Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera.
In 1998 the Ensemble Modern formed its own offshoot with the founding of the Ensemble Modern Orchestra, a full-sized orchestra created to perform large-scale repertory. It is only a part-time ensemble, however, assembling for specific occasions. In 2003 a second offshoot was born, this one of an educational nature, the International Ensemble Modern Academy. This organization offers scholarships, master classes, and is involved in many other educational endeavors. In 2006 the Ensemble Modern, faithful to its stated mission, introduced much new music at its concerts, including works by Ludger Kisters (In between and further), Annesley Black (LAUF), and Yaeko Asano (Berg, Stern, Stein -- Sonne). To help support itself over the years, the Ensemble has received funding from the city of Frankfurt, other German government agencies, and several cultural foundations.