Composers who died before 40

Many composers have died very young and often, we assume, at the height of their creative powers. But if they'd hung on a little longer, Malcolm Hayes wonders, could Western music's development have been radically altered? Here are four composers who died before they hit their 41st birthday

Schubert's grave in Vienna's Zentralfriedhof

In music, as in any area of life, hindsight plays tricks. One of the most seductive is the idea that each of the great composers somehow ‘died at the right time’ – that however short their individual lives, they achieved such great things, often in such quantity, that their contribution to music was beyond being added to or surpassed. Looking back, music’s lines of development can seem deceptively clear. An example would be the transformation of the Classical age of Haydn and Mozart, by way of Beethoven and Schubert, into the Romantic era of Chopin and Wagner, all within less than a century. But three of those composers, for instance, died young. What if they had lived longer?


When Mozart, for instance, died aged 35, probably from rheumatic fever, he had already created a shoal of masterworks in every current musical genre. Even so, his style at that point was developing as restlessly as it always had: the master contrapuntist of the Jupiter Symphony of 1788 was exploring, in parts of his Requiem three years later, a type of plangent homophony which seems almost simple by comparison. Would he have pursued this in subsequent works? He could have outlived Beethoven: and with a 70-year-old Mozart still on the scene, it’s inconceivable that Western music would have not turned out differently. And there have been unexpectedly early, history-changing deaths among composers in later centuries as well as in earlier ones.

Henry Purcell (1659-95)

Henry Purcell’s 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 from the early Baroque, by way of Dowland, the Elizabethan madrigalists, and the Tudor age of Tallis and Byrd, to the Renaissance era of Dunstable. 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’, which for some inexplicable reason had ceased to produce great home-grown composers, and had been grateful for the presence of the German-born, English-naturalised Handel.

It was just over 200 years before Elgar’s Enigma Variations heralded English music’s wonderful 20th-century renaissance. 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.

Read our reviews of the latest Purcell recordings here

Find out more about Purcell and his works here

Franz Schubert  (1797-1828)

Schubert died at 31, 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 (who later taught Bruckner). Sketches for Schubert’s 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. Schubert’s own stage and operatic ventures, such as Fierrabras and Rosamunde, had been unsuccessful. Perhaps, with a newly developed technical armoury, he would have made further and much finer attempts at opera?

Read our reviews of the latest Schubert recordings here

Find out more about Schubert and his works here

George Gershwin  (1898-1937)

While the only pattern to the emergence of creative genius is that there is no pattern, Gershwin’s story is even more remarkable than most. Within less than two decades the erstwhile teenage Broadway song-plugger, who hadn’t touched a piano until the age of ten, 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? And while his Russian-émigré Jewish roots do not at first seem to have been an issue for him, some of his correspondence in the 1930s shows that his awareness of the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany was beginning to change this. It is very possible that, like his close friend Schoenberg, and also Kurt Weill, Gershwin after World War II would have taken an interest in the foundation of the state of Israel – with fruitful, if hard-to-gauge consequences for that country’s musical story, and perhaps that of Europe also, as well as America.

Read our reviews of the latest Gershwin recordings here

Find out more about Gershwin and his works here

Alban Berg  (1885-1935)

We have used a little poetic license to include Berg here as he died when he was 40 years old. More than his close friends Schoenberg (his former teacher) and Webern, Alban Berg was Austrian music’s direct successor to Mahler. His close musical affinity with his great predecessor was mirrored by his own death at the same age, and also from a blood infection – caused in Berg’s case by an untreated bee sting.

By the mid-1930s the advent of Nazism had led to the banning of Berg’s opera Wozzeck as ‘degenerate’, and the demise of the royalties from its performances there. Although he was not Jewish, Austria’s annexation by Germany in 1938 would surely have forced Berg into exile. It is not impossible to imagine him, with his famous, winning charm, adapting himself to life in the US and, like Schoenberg, teaching composition at a university there. But America’s musical scene would not have been fertile ground for performances of the modernistic opera Lulu, unfinished when Berg died. Would he have stayed State-side (like Schoenberg and Stravinsky), concentrating on concert works? Or, like Hindemith, would he have returned to Europe, in his case to create further masterworks of 20th-century opera? Berg’s presence among Boulez, Stockhausen and their avant-garde colleagues might have made the history of post-war European music rather different.

Read our reviews of the latest Berg recordings here

Find out more about Berg and his works here

…And one composer who died at 50

Gustav Mahler  (1860-1911)

Mahler’s frenetic double career as a composer-conductor contributed to his early death at 50. Compulsive workaholism had always driven him to ignore danger signs regarding his health, such as an intestinal haemorrhage in 1901 that nearly killed him. And medical debate is today split as to whether the streptococcal infection that caused his death would have proved fatal if penicillin had then been available.

The masterworks we think of as ‘late’ Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony – are therefore really middle-period ones, which point tantalisingly towards an unrealised future. Keenly interested in the modernist explorations of the Schoenberg school, Mahler created passages in his Ninth Symphony that match these developments. If he had lived, would his music have paralleled Schoenberg’s journey towards total chromaticism and serialism? Or would it, like Zemlinsky’s, have remained anchored to traditional tonality? In the unfinished Tenth Symphony’s first Scherzo movement, rapid changes of metre and a new crispness of expression together point ahead to the 1920s idiom of Weill or Hindemith. Would Mahler’s later symphonies have been neoclassical antidotes to their hyper-expressive predecessors? He would have been in his seventies when, with his Jewish parentage, he would have had to flee from Nazism in Europe. His octogenarian presence in wartime America is indeed an intriguing thought.

Read our reviews of the latest Mahler recordings here

Read more about Mahler and his works here


This article first appeared in the September 2010 issue of BBC Music Magazine