They died (relatively) young and stayed (relatively) pretty. So who were classical music’s biggest losers?
The history of music is littered with ‘what ifs’ and ‘might have beens’ but none more tantalising than those composers who died before potentially giving of their best. Of course, any such list is by its nature subjective and, the huffers and puffers will be delighted to know, this one is no different!
Our two parameters were to keep candidates under 40 years of age and to focus on those whose style showed the greatest signs of further development. You won’t find Mozart, nor for that matter Chopin. And many promising candidates like Kallinikov and Jeremiah Clarke just failed to make the cut.
So who does that leave? Read on to find out who we thought made the grade…
Death: Crohn’s Disease
Boulanger was the first female composer to win the coveted Prix de Rome composition prize for her cantata Faust et Héléne in 1913. This work perfectly captures the composer’s unique post-romantic style, with an emphasis on colour and texture; in Faust et Héléne Boulanger exceeds the inspirations of Fauré and Debussy.
Boulanger suffered from recurring illnesses throughout her life, exacerbated by her weakened immune system. This meant that prolonged periods of composition were out of the question for Boulanger. Despite this restriction, what works exist display a degree of sophistication and creativity unique for a composer of this period.
The tropes of Romanticism are filtered through Boulanger’s distinctly French influence to create a unique compositional voice and an individual vision of romanticism.
Thomas Linley (the younger) displayed a prodigious talent from a early age, earning his a reputation as “the English Mozart”. This comparison is not an exaggeration; he was performing violin concertos at the age of seven, and by the age of 12 he had left for Italy to study under the famous violinist Pietro Niardini.
Over the following years, Linley developed into a masterful composer of solo, chorus and orchestral material writing ambitious works for concert halls at home and abroad.
As the youngest death on this list it is not surprising that Linley’s catalogue is relatively minimal. We can gain some insight into the extent of this loss however, by comparing the composer to Mozart who llived for 13 more years than Linley.
At the time of Linley’s death, Mozart was wrapping up his unsuccessful Paris trip, and while he had written significant compositions thus far, it was only after starting his time in Vienna that he composed some of his most enduring works, particularly in the field of opera – The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, the list goes on.
It is this development that Linley’s catalogue understandably lacks. Charles Burney however wrote,”The ‘Tommasino’, as he is called, and the little Mozart are talked of all over Italy, as the most promising geniuses of this age.” Mozart later told fellow musician Michael kelly that “Linley was a true genius” who “had he lived, would have been one of the greatest ornaments of the musical world”.
Death: Killed In Action – World War I
When George Butterworth was killed by a snipers bullet in World War One he left the behind only a small volume of original compositions. However, his contributions to music as a researcher and music critic were significant, and in turn fed into his compositional practice.
Butterworth spent considerable time documenting English folk song and it is this interest that lies at the heart of his original work that is at once gentle, yet highly structured, belying a distinctive ‘Englishness’.
Originally destined to become a solicitor, during his studies at Trinity College, Oxford, Butterworth formed a working relationship with the renowned folk song collector Cecil Sharp and composer Vaughan Williams, the latter of which was to develop into a close working relationship and friendship – Butterworth would become essential in helping William’s to construct A London Symphony.
There is something wonderfully simple about Butterworth’s music. It is unassuming, the perfect counterbalance to the modernistic tendencies of the first half of the 20th Century. His style sprang from his sense of ‘Englishness’ but by the time Butterworth started composing he was able to take this influence and shape it into something refreshingly unique.
His own tendency for self-censorship helped to refine our perspective of his legacy consisting of a singular style: he burnt much of his work before leaving for France in 1915, deeming it unworthy of existing.
Hans Rott is a difficult composer to discuss, chiefly because he didn’t get the chance to complete much music before he died, and partly because the circumstances of his later life tend to drown out discussions of his music. His idols however were Wagner and Brahms.
After repeatedly being unable to find an orchestra to perform his Symphony in E Major, by age 22 Rott developed a hallucinatory insanity, culminating in 1880 when he threatened passengers on a train ride to Mulhouse in Alsace with a revolver, claiming that Brahms had filled the carriage with dynamite. He was committed to a mental institution where his condition continued until he passed away from tuberculosis in 1884.
Rott has been hailed as one of the great losses to classical music, based on what he might have accomplished. If we consider the events that no doubt contributed to his mental instability – the conservatory’s disregard for the submitted portion of his Symphony in E Major, the rejection he faced by both Hans Richter and Johannes Brahms – it is both brutal and yet sadly reflective of the experience of many creative artists.
Following his “rejection”, Rott could have rebuilt his practice, and used his experience to forge a truly unique style. His Symphony shows a similar degree of invention and sophistication to the early works of Mahler (who almost certainly plundered Rott’s work for a theme or two), and having a second Mahler in the world could have changed the nature of the romantic period all together. Sadly we will never know.
Death: Brain tumor
A highly original composer with a distinctly American sound, Gershwin straddled the worlds of popular and classical music.
He began his career in Tin Pan Alley, where the influences of jazz and ragtime helped shape the songs he was writing for the music publisher Remick. His early career was met with success as his song writing transitioned into musical theatre collaborations.
Gershwin’s contributions to the world of classical music incorporated his love of melody and popular idioms – his Rhapsody in Blue is a jazz concerto for orchestra, while An American in Paris uses popular music – the blues, the Charleston and so forth – as the basis for much of the musical material.
It is Gershwin’s adaptability that really defined him as a composer, and which is captured in all its awkward glory in the opera Porgy and Bess. Completed two years before the composer’s death, Porgy and Bess straddles the line between opera and musical, incorporating a diverse range of musical structures (fugue, passacaglia, serialism) combined with the conventions of popular music, in particular the blues.
The audience response to Porgy and Bess was mixed and ultimately the production failed to make money. Following this venture Gershwin relocated to Hollywood where he would work primarily on film music for the remainder of his life. But it is Porgy and Bess that poses us with the great ‘what if?’ Here, Gershwin’s ability to combine innovative elements into a coherent production truly speaks to his genius.
Gershwin’s influences have led some critics to regard him, instead of being a popular or classical composer, as being a composer of no fixed genre, simply creating exciting and varied music. Such an assessment explains the welcome relief that is Gershwin’s music – one is confronted in turn by so many of the various ‘isms’ that populate the 20th Century. So Gershwin points to a direction music might have pursued – a conceptual openness, where all musical ideas are equal.
Death: Inflammation of the intestine
Bellini is another composer whose story is not so much tragic as it is unfortunate. Bellini was one of the period’s most notable composers of Italian opera, a composer with considerable talents and a master of the bel canto style. His works are intricate, with beautiful melodies often disguising significant challenges for the vocalists. His second commission, the opera Il Pirata, established Bellini on the international stage and winning him numerous acclamations.
Bellini had a few poorly received works but he always recovered quickly and to greater acclaim. Somewhat tellingly, the operas that failed to resonate were often rushed, representing rare instances where the composer neglected his focus on quality over quantity.
Bellini appears to have led a comfortable life, maintaining a social profile and a gallant lifestyle, but his early death certainly leaves a hole in the canon of the romantic period. His influence can be felt in his admirers – Chopin, Berlioz, and Wagner all listed Bellini as a significant influence – and it’s hard to escape the feeling that he could have brought a conciseness to some of the Romantic developments in harmony and form had he lived and not passed away so young.
Death: Unknown (possibly tuberculosis)
Widely regarded as England’s greatest composer of the Baroque period, Purcell passed away at the height of his career. By age 36 he had a distinguished position as Royal Instrument Keeper and was one of three court composers appointed during the reign of Queen Mary II.
Much of his work consisted of sacred vocal and choral music, fitting for the son of the master of choristers at Westminster Abbey. Purcell’s biography doesn’t so much tell of a composer that was struck down in the prime of his life, but rather someone who achieved that prime at a sufficiently early age that he could enjoy a period of improvement of musical refinement.
Purcell enjoyed significant appreciation during his time, receiving numerous commissions from royalty and holding court positions of an increasingly grand nature. His early death is a loss, not in the direction his music might have gone, but more probably in the continued composition of great works.
It would, however, have been fascinating to see how musical London might have adapted had he been alive when Handel came to town. Would the passion for Italian opera have taken root if Purcell had been able to further develop a native species? Alas, we will never know.
Death: Heart attack
Your average classical music attendee would probably be able to tell you that Bizet wrote Carmen, and that’s about it. Bizet wrote a few works in other genres, touching briefly on works for orchestra and piano, but few, if any, went on to enter the conventional repertoire.
This leaves Bizet’s operas as his central, enduring creations. Much of this work was met unfavourably when premiered, perhaps due to the composer’s stern departure from the conventions of French opera. Few of Bizet’s works would receive more than a handful of performances. It was only after his death that his work would receive significant acclaim.
When Bizet passed away he left behind volumes of unfinished work, a reflection of his uneasy relationship with the overly conservative attitude towards music in France at the time. Much of his early work has been criticised for being too indebted to his influences – particularly Charles Gounod – but there is a sentiment amongst critics that Bizet was starting to break out from this around the time of his death and the publication of Carmen.
That Bizet passed away only experiencing Carmen as “a definite and hopeless flop” is a tragedy, but the bigger tragedy is that the artist was never offered the opportunity to develop into more than the sum of his influences.
Pergolesi is known for his contributions to the work of Baroque opera, in particular Opera Buffa. La Serva Padrona is probably Pergolesi’s most famous work, a two act intermezzo from the larger opera Il Prigioner Superbo. What makes La Serva Padrona stand out from other comic operas that revolve around one character attempting to trick another into marriage is that is was one of the first to use a simplistic story as a frame on which to hang characterisation and comedy. The work helped to establish the conventions and influence great works to come, most notably from Mozart.
In the last few years of his life, Pergolesi started to focus on sacred music including his Mass in F and his Magnificat in C. However it was his Stabat Mater that made the most significant impact. A musical setting of the original poem, generally credited to the Italian poet Jacopone da Todi, the Stabat Mater became the most frequently printed musical composition in the eighteenth century. Pergolesi’s work is credited for combining the short, melodic forms of the gallant with the tradition of sacred music.
Most likely, Pergolesi could have spent the rest of his life moving between the two genres and innovating accordingly. It would have been interesting to see how the parallel development in both forms might have influenced his musical language overall. Instead the works that he has left behind for us capture a young composer’s initial foray into sophisticated musical practices.
Schubert was one of the earliest romantic composers and helped define the sound and style of romantic music. While Schubert wrote for almost every musical form (orchestra, choral, quartets, piano sonatas, and so on) his presence is felt perhaps most strongly in his contribution to lieder where he was especially prolific – in 1815 he wrote as many as 145, including perhaps his most enduring work, Der Erlkönig.
The loss of Schubert to classical music is especially keen. Schubert was a prolific creator, composing continuously until his death. Every year of his life, Schubert would produce reams of new material, and in none of these years did he fail to produce at least one work that is regarded highly or performed widely today. Had Schubert continued to work at this pace in later life it is entirely realistic to expect that he would have conquered every musical genre and style.
Equally, Schubert was a great innovator though he was adept at disguising this behind his fantastic melodies. Schubert revered Beethoven, and Beethoven’s innovative nature can be felt in spirit throughout Schubert’s music. Schubert’s manipulations of the conventions of harmony and numerous technical innovations (the use of word painting being the one most high school students walk away understanding) all illustrate a departure from the norm that can be seen to parallel Beethoven’s.
The tragedy is that we never got a chance to see how Schubert’s youthful quest for innovation could shape Romantic-era music further. Instead what we have is a collection of imaginative and polished works from one of the greatest creative minds of the time.