Tragic Talents: 10 Composers Taken Too Soon, Before Turning 40

Byvu lita

Jul 19, 2023

The Finnish composer Sibelius died at the impressively old age of 91. His close contemporary Richard Strauss also notched up an impressive 85 years, despite a life that was often fraught with difficulty. Neither, however, came close to the American Elliott Carter, who was still composing shortly before his death at the age of 103.

Not all are so lucky. Below, in descending order, we list the composing greats who didn’t even make it to 40 years old…

George Gershwin (died aged 38 years, 9 months)

Though Gershwin (1898-1937) didn’t even touch a piano until the age of ten, within less than two decades had created the first great American opera, and out of a virtually non-existent national tradition at that. If a brain tumour had not killed the composer of Porgy and Bess at 38, how many more stellar successors might such a brilliant creation have had? The self-taught Gershwin was gifted with the curiosity and self-knowledge that had enabled his style to develop from, for instance, the jazz-based Rhapsody in Blue to the greater scope and finesse of the Piano Concerto, the Second Rhapsody, and An American in Paris. Might he one day have thought about composing symphonies?

Felix Mendelssohn (died aged 38 years, 8 months)

Like both Mozart and Schubert (see below), Mendelssohn (1809-47) revealed his genius early – his String Octet in E flat major and Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written at the age of 16 and 17, are both masterpieces of their type. In an exceptionally active life which included lengthy tours of Italy and Great Britain plus time devoted to bringing the music of JS Bach back to popularity, he also found time to compose five symphonies, concertos for violin and piano, oratorios including Elijah and St Paul and a veritable wealth of songs and chamber music – producing an opera of significance was about the only thing to elude him. Perhaps, though, he worked simply too hard? In his final years, his health started to fail him badly and he eventually succumbed to a series of strokes at the age of 38 – just six months after his sister Fanny Mendelssohn, herself a formidably talented composer and pianist, had died aged 41.

Georges Bizet (died aged 36 years, 7 months)

When Bizet (1838-1875) died of a heart attack, many presumed that it was a case of suicide. The reason? Just three months earlier, his Carmen had received decidedly mixed reviews at its premiere and the French composer himself was convinced that the opera was a ‘definite and hopeless flop’ – a bitter irony, given its subsequent success. Bizet, though, was by no means a one-hit wonder. Like others on this list, he showed his talent early, writing his extremely accomplished Symphony in C at just 17, before masterpieces such as his opera Les pêcheurs de perles and the orchestral L’Arlesienne suite cemented his place of honour in the music history books. If only he’d known that himself…

Henry Purcell (died aged 36 years, 2 months)

Why did Purcell (1659-95) die so young? The popular version has it that the English composer perished in the cold when he was locked out of the house by his wife after returning late from a night on the tiles. It’s a good story, but probably not true. What we do know is that his death at 36 turned out to be more momentous even than the world of English music understood at the time. Widely appreciated in his lifetime, Purcell’s talent was the latest of a rich and continuous line of development that stretched back to the Renaissance era. Yet by the early 20th century England was being pityingly described, in the resurgent Austro-German musical scene, as ‘Das Land ohne Musik’ – the ‘country without music’. Perhaps, if Purcell had lived longer, the story in those intervening two centuries might have been different? His co-option of aspects of current French and Italian styles had created his own distinctively English Baroque counterpart, enriching the nation’s church music and, even more so, its musical theatre. Purcell’s one-act Dido and Aeneas is deservedly revered as the first great English opera. If he had lived to compose several more, maybe English music would not have to wait until the 1940s, and Britten’s Peter Grimes, for the next one to come along.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ( died aged 35 years, 10 months)

By the time of his death, Mozart’s (1756-91) bulging portfolio already contained 41 symphonies, 23 piano concertos (plus concertos of major importance for the violin, flute, oboe, clarinet and horn), 23 string quartets, 36 violin sonatas, significant operas including The Marriage of FigaroDon Giovanni and The Magic Flute and much, much else besides (Mozart was one of the greatest opera composers ever). With those accomplishments already behind him, it’s hard to gauge exactly where he would have focused his attention had he lived longer.

Might he perhaps have radically reshaped the symphony, as Beethoven did in the first two decades of the 19th century (when Mozart would have been in his 50s and 60s)? One knotty problem that has intrigued scholars is how he might have completed his Requiem, the work Mozart famously left unfinished at his death. Though his pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr, plus various others, did a decent enough job, the great man himself would have surely produced something on an entirely higher plane of inspiration.

Vincenzo Bellini (died aged 33 years, 10 months)

Bellini (1801-1835) was as widely admired by his fellow composers as he was adored by audiences at Italy’s major opera houses. Verdi later enthused about his ‘long, long, long melodies such as no one before had written’ and the likes of Chopin and Liszt were also major fans. Over the course of the 1820s and early-1830s, Bellini wowed the Italian public with his mastery of the bel canto operatic style, showcasing the talents of sopranos such as Giuditta Pasta and Giuditta Grisi in major hits including La sonnambula and – best known today – Norma. Alas, in contrast to those long, long melodies, his life was destined to be tragically short, with a combination of an inflamed intestine and an abscess of the liver bringing the curtain down prematurely on his brilliance in September 1835.

Franz Schubert (died aged 31 years, 9 months)

Schubert’s (1797-1828) death at 31 was probably from the combined effects of syphilis and of poisoning by the mercury then used to treat it. Of his over 900 works, more than 600 were Lieder, a new-ish classical genre which he had brought to a pinnacle of imagination that’s still unsurpassed. And besides his chamber music and symphonies, the 20th century brought about a new appreciation of his extensive sequence of piano sonatas. Yet, like Mozart, Schubert when he died was still a phenomenally gifted young composer with a developing style. He had arranged to study counterpoint with the formidable pedagogue Simon Sechter and sketches for his Tenth Symphony contain a pre-Mahlerian flavour of spare, bleak lyricism that might have signalled a new direction in this way. Along with his two concert Masses, the little-known cantata Lazarus indicates that Schubert could have become one of the great choral composers. A life lasting reasonably into his mid-sixties would have made him a contemporary of Schumann and Chopin, and familiar with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Perhaps, with a newly developed technical armoury, he would have made further and much finer attempts at opera than his ill-fated Fierrabras and Rosamunde?

Giovanni Batista Pergolesi (died aged 26 years, 2 months)

Today, we know Pergolesi (1710-1736) best for the gorgeous interweaving soprano and alto lines of his Stabat mater, composed in the final weeks of his life. In his own day, however, he was the toast of Naples opera-goers, producing a string of successes such as the comic interlude La serva padrona and L’Olimpiade. His fame was not limited to southern Italy, however, and JS Bach was among those to have been inspired by his work. Pergolesi lived in rapidly changing times and always proved adept at staying with them, so who knows just what he might have gone on to produce had tuberculosis not taken his life at just 26?

Lili Boulanger (died aged 24 years, 6 months)

The great Nadia Boulanger is revered today as one of the most influential composition teachers of all time, with a long list of pupils ranging from Aaron Copland and Philip Glass to Astor Piazzolla and Quincy Jones. It was, however, her younger sister Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) who, at 19, first made a major impact when she won the prestigious Prix de Rome for composition in 1913 – the first ever female composer to do so. As well as Faust et Hélène, per prize-winning cantata, Lily composed works such as Les sirènes and Vieille prière bouddhique that are as inventive as they are lushly exquisite. She was, though, continually plagued by ill health, and the bronchial pneumonia that weakened her immune system as a child eventually took its toll. Nadia, in contrast, lived to the age of 92.

Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga (died 19 years, 11 months)

Often nicknamed the ‘Spanish Mozart’, Arriaga (1806-26) was born on what would have been the Austrian composer’s 50th birthday. Born and raised in Bilbao, whose opera house is today named after him, he made his name in Paris, where he studied at the Conservatoire from the age of 15. There, his teacher, the composer Cherubini, was bowled over by a talent that produced works including three quartets, a Symphony in D, a Stabat mater, a mass for four voices, the opera Los esclavos felices (‘The Happy Slaves’) and several smaller-scale instrumental and vocal works. Sadly, after his death from a lung infection a couple of weeks short of his 20th birthday, the scores of many of his works were lost. Truth be told, Arriaga was, in fact, no Mozart, but it’s an intriguing case of what might have been.

Jeremy Pound

Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s acting editor, having initially joined the magazine as deputy editor in August 2004. Before that he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History RevealedTotal Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book A former chorister at New College, Oxford, he later returned to the same university to study classics. Choral music remains a particular passion, as do early 20th-century English composers.

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