Although Bratislava has a rich musical tradition, it was only permitted to develop along particular lines during the communist era. Contemporary music from America and Europe was disparaged, as was Slovak music influenced by western trends - performances were severely restricted. The concept of organising an international festival of contemporary music occupied the minds of younger composers and musicologists as early as the late 1960s. At that time, the idea faced opposition from both politicians and the Union of Composers. It took the fall of the communist regime in 1989 to finally enable the establishment of such a festival.
The first Melos-Ethos International Festival of Contemporary Music took place in 1991. The aim of the festival was to present classic works of the 20th century avant-garde scene, thus filling the gap created by the former regime, and also to present works by Slovak and Czech modernist composers, spanning from the late 1950s to the present day - works which were marginalised and kept under the lid. Building upon this initiative, Melos-Ethos has become a platform for the meeting of Slovak music and current trends in contemporary music worldwide, both in the field of composition and performance.
The very name Melos-Ethos, thought up by the composer Roman Berger, symbolises the festival's quest not only to present the latest trends in "musical design", but also to stress the ethical and humanistic message of art; the spiritual besieged by the material.
The Melos-Ethos International Festival of Contemporary Music is held every other year in November, and includes 10 to 15 concerts. Its main organiser is the Music Centre of Slovakia, delegated by the Ministry of Culture of the Slovak Republic, and the programme is drawn up by the festival committee. Every festival is prepared in close cooperation with foreign cultural institutions and other local or international organisations. Concerts are held in Bratislava's halls, churches, and theatres, and the festival booklet is published in Slovak and in English.
Because it is a festival of composers, the main programme focus is on works of high quality, half of which are Slovak premieres. The festival also commissions Slovak composers to compose works, which are then performed at its concerts. Each festival has a featured guest - a distinguished composer from abroad - who is given a profile concert. The festival has already invited and welcomed among others György Ligeti, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, Vinko Globokar, Erkki-Sven Türr, Krzysztof Penderecki, Zygmunt Krauze, Arvo Pärt, Sofia Gubaidulina, Steve Reich and Kaija Saariaho.
In the framework of the festival, composers and performers hold workshops or discussions attended by students, composers, and performers.