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Music and Mortality: Classical Composers Who Died Young

Mozart, posthumous portrait by Barbara Krafft, 1819.

Mozart, posthumous portrait by Barbara Krafft, 1819.

Introduction

Classical music is well-known for its prodigies. Everybody knows that Mozart was composing music before he could wipe his own nose. Chopin had achieved notoriety by his teenage years. A case could be made that Mendelssohn was the most successful prodigy in classical music, as measured by early works that have actually remained in the concert repertoire.

It is a little surprising, in turn, just how many of classical music's great composers have died at a relatively young age (making their early start all the more important). The tally includes many of the masters: Mozart, Chopin, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and others. Check out the list, and consider how much these musicians accomplished before reaching age 40:

The List: Composers Who Died Before Age 40

Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835). Enduring works: Norma, numerous other operas. Age at death: 33.

Georges Bizet (1838-1875). Enduring works: Carmen, numerous other operas. Age at death: 36.

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849). Enduring works: Piano works–sonatas, waltzes, preludes, ballades, etc. Age at death: 39.

George Gershwin (1898-1937). Enduring works: Porgy and Bess, Rhapsody in Blue, Three Preludes, An American in Paris, Piano Concerto in F, Broadway musicals, songs. Age at death: 38.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Enduring works: Overture to Midsummer Night's Dream, string quartets, Symphonies 1-5, The Hebrides, Violin Concerto, Elijah, "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," Lieder ohne Worte, songs, organ sonatas, etc. Age at death: 38.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, other operas, piano concertos, violin concertos, string quartets, Requiem, etc. Age at death: 35.

Otto Nicolai (1810-1849). Enduring works: The Merry Wives of Windsor. Age at death: 38.

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Enduring works: La Serva Pedrona, other early comic operas, Stabat Mater. Age at death: 26.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695). Enduring works: Dido and Aeneas, The Fairy-Queen, odes, cantatas, etc. Age at death: 36.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828). Enduring works: Symphonies 1-9, 600 lieder, chamber music. Age at death: 31.

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826). Enduring works: Der Freischütz, Euryanthe, Oberon, various concertos. Age at death: 39.

Source: Herbert Kupferberg, The Book of Classical Music Lists.

Felix Mendelssohn at age 30. Watercolor by James Warren Childe, 1839.

Felix Mendelssohn at age 30. Watercolor by James Warren Childe, 1839.

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Comments

sfrentz06 from Sterling Heights, MI, USA on March 07, 2011:

Wow! Very interesting hub.

kimballtrombone (author) on November 03, 2010:

Thanks all, for your comments! Glad you found it interesting and thanks for stopping by.

Kelly Kline Burnett from Madison, Wisconsin on November 03, 2010:

Oh, I love history and knowing this information is so helpful. We think our lives are over and yet these famous artists did so much in such a little time.

Great presentation. Admire your research and writing styles.

Excellent!

May you live long and prosper.

michael ely from Scotland on October 21, 2010:

Hi Kimballtrombone, This was interesting to read. I didn't have a lot of knowledge of these composers but somehow i always just assumed they were making music into old age. It just shows that you can't assume anything. Michael.

Galaxy Harvey from United Kingdom on October 13, 2010:

Wow, I had no idea that so many of the great composers died so young. Makes me feel like quite an underachiever too. Great hub, very interesting and informative.

Ingenira on October 10, 2010:

So many of my favourites in the list. Thanks Jewels, for finding out the reason for their death. I felt that it was coincidently the lack of medical advancement at their time that has caused the composers short-lived. Not because they are musicians.

Most of the celebrities today live rather long lives.

ThePeeDeeWildcat from Just Across The State Line on September 28, 2010:

The famous musicologist Dr. Karl Haas used to ask his listeners "what were you doing when you were seventeen"? After listening to the compositions by these masters, I'd prefer to take the fifth amendment.

Martie Coetser from South Africa on September 27, 2010:

Always sad when valuable people die too young. Thanks for the list.

Jewels from Australia on September 26, 2010:

Thanks for the flip side. I needed to read that!

kimballtrombone (author) on September 26, 2010:

Here's the companion piece: https://hubpages.com/entertainment/Music-and-Morta...

kimballtrombone (author) on September 26, 2010:

Thanks for your comments, Whikat and Jewels, and for the additional info, Jewels! Great points.

Stay tuned for the flip side of the coin, a follow-up to this hub--Music and Mortality: Composers Who Lived Past 80. That list is not quite as prestigious, but it's surprisingly long!

Whikat on September 26, 2010:

Thank you Jewels, for that information. That makes the information even more fascinating, but as you stated sad. It is strange that music can make people who listen to it live longer, but the person composing it live less?

Jewels from Australia on September 26, 2010:

Couldn't help myself!

Vincenzo Bellini cause of death: Acute disentry, inflamation of large intenstine and abscess of the liver.

Georges Bizet: heart failure

Chopin: Tuberculosis (of possibly cystic fibrosis)

Gershwin: Brain Tumor

Felix Mendelssohn: Stroke

Mozart: rheumatic inflammatory fever.

Otto Nicolai: Stroke

Giovanni Battista: Turberculosis

Henry Purcell: Possibly turberculosis, cause of death unclear.

Franz Schubert: Typhus

Carl Maria von Weber: Turberculosis.

Jewels from Australia on September 26, 2010:

Fascinating and sad. I'm wondering what they died of? Strangely as music soothes and is known to prolong life, did these guys become obsessed and die of madness? I'll have to google them now. I'll be back!

Whikat on September 26, 2010:

This hub is fascinating, I knew about Mozart of course, but I did not know about the other famous composers. It seems either the 1700 and 1800 were very challenging centuries to live in, or it must have taken a lot out of these composers physically and mentally to write the Masterpieces.