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Ars Longa, Vita Brevis: Composers Who Had Short Lives

Art is long, but life is short. (Credit: Pixabay)

This week, we dedicate our show to composers who shuffled off their mortal coils too early. It’s a show about composers with short lives, it’s a show we’re calling Ars Longa, Vita Brevis.

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, age 35 – Hushed with secrecy, Mozart was commissioned by Count Walsegg-Stuppach to write a requiem for his wife, who had died in February of 1791.  Although the commission came to Mozart in the summer, he was tied up with the composition of his final two operas, La Clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte. He didn’t begin work on the Requiem until October.  Mozart never finished the work – he died on the fifth of December at the age of 35, leaving only a bare framework of some movements, and others uncomposed. Rumors have always surrounded Mozart’s early death, the most popular being that Antonio Salieri murdered him by poison. The Academy-Award winning film Amadeus pitted the two composers against each other, making the rivalry seem even more like a historical reality. However there is no credible evidence to support the notion that Mozart was poisoned.  His official cause of death is listed as rheumatic inflammatory fever.


  • Franz Schubert, age 31 – When Schubert died suddenly at the age of 31—some say because of syphilis, others typhoid fever, others mercury poisoning—he left behind a large body of unpublished (and unfinished) works. His publisher Tobias Haslinger collected a number of Schubert’s unpublished songs and created a posthumous song cycle that he called “Schwanengesang” or “Swan Song”—hoping this collection would serve as Schubert’s final musical statement. Unlike Schubert’s previous song cycles, like Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, the songs of Schwanengesang had texts by three different poets, and the songs don’t work as well as a complete unit. “Der Doppelganger,” with a spooky text by Heinrich Heine, is one of the more famous songs from this collection, but probably not the last Lied that Schubert wrote—that was most likely the final song from Schwanengesag called “Taubenpost,” or “Pigeon Post.”


  • Frédéric Chopin, age 39 – This famous funeral march was originally composed as a separate movement in 1837, and was later added to Chopin’s second piano sonata, in what Robert Schumann dubbed “four of Chopin’s most unruly children under the same roof.” This sorrowful work was written in memory of no one, but soon became an elegy for Chopin himself. Shortly after completing the work, Chopin’s health began to deteriorate, and he died in October 1849 at only the age of 39. He was laid to rest in the famed Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris (where Bizet, Rossini, Oscar Wilde, and Jim Morrison are also buried), and an arrangement of his own funeral march was played graveside on the day of his funeral. Despite his body being buried in Paris, the following year his heart was returned for interment in his native Poland.


  • George Gershwin, age 38 – Late in his life (relatively speaking, he was only 38 when he died), George Gershwin moved from New York—where he first established himself as a Broadway song composer, as well as a composer of more “serious” stage and concert works—all the way to Hollywood, where he began composing for films. He first wrote the music for the Astaire and Rogers vehicle Shall We Dance and soon began working on another project. Around this time, he began complaining of headaches and blackouts. After collapsing, it was determined that Gershwin had a brain tumor, and doctors were unsuccessful in trying to remove it. He died in 1937, while writing the score for the film musical The Goldwyn Follies. “Our Love is Here to Stay” is from that film, and was one of the last songs that Gershwin ever wrote.


  • Carl Maria von Weber, age 39 – In August of 1824, Weber received a commission from the manager of Covent Garden in London for a new opera.  He was given  the choice of two subjects for the opera, either Faust or Oberon, and chose the latter.  The character Oberon, known in legend as king of the elves or fairies, appears famously in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but  Weber’s opera used a libretto based on Christoph Martin Wieland’s 1780 poem, also called Oberon.  He undertook the project in order to provide financial support for his family.  At the time of the opera’s composition, Weber was in failing health.  Oberon turned out to be a great success, but the strain of production, along with tuberculosis, proved fatal to Weber, and he passed away soon after the premier at the age of 39. Richard Wagner performed the eulogy at his funeral.


  • Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, age 26 – Giovanni Battista Pergolesi was one of the most celebrated composers in the early classical style, receiving some fairly prominent commissions in Naples soon after he graduated from the conservatory. He soon became known for his opera buffa compositions, including the famous intermezzo La Serva Padrona. His Stabat Mater, a sacred work commissioned by a Neapolitan brotherhood, was written only a few weeks before he tragically died of tuberculous at the age of 26. The work became enormously popular after he died; it was the single most published work of the 18th century, with many adaptations circling around, including one by J. S. Bach. He achieved such immense posthumous fame that many 18th-century works were incorrectly attributed to him—a problem that Igor Stravinsky ran into in the 20th century when he tried to adapt Pergolesi’s music for his ballet Pulcinella.


  • William Lawes, (about) age 42 – Life expectancy in Renaissance England was not particularly long (about 42 years), though if you were a member of the royal court your chances were generally better. That is, until the English Civil War came along. It was this that lead to the untimely demise of William Lawes. His tombstone proclaims “Will. Lawes was slain by such whose wills were laws.” In the years after John Dowland but before Henry Purcell, Lawes reigned as the greatest composer in England. He was employed by King Charles I, even before Charles was coronated in 1625. Lawes was so loyal to King Charles I that he actually fought alongside him in the English Civil War. Lawes enlisted as a member of the King’s Life Guard, a group that guarded the royal residence of the king and was meant to keep Lawes out of danger. Nevertheless, he accompanied Charles at the battle of Rowton Heath where he was “casually shot” by a Parliamentarian.


  • Lili Boulanger, age 24 – The Boulanger family was truly a musical family. Both parents were musicians themselves and noticed prodigious musical talent in their two daughters, Nadia and Lili. Both siblings started taking lessons at a very young age and grew up to be very gifted composers. Lili had the opportunity to study with many prominent teachers at the Paris Conservatory, including Paul Vidal, Georges Caussade and the illustrious Gabriel Fauré. In fact, Faure was so impressed with Lili that he often brought some of his songs for her to sight-read at her lessons. Lili was also the first woman to win the prestigious Prix de Rome composition prize at the very young age of 19! Sadly, her life and work was troubled by chronic illness for most of her life and she died from Crohns’s disease at the age of 24. Nadia, however, went on to become a successful composer and an inspirational teacher to generations of composers during the 20th century.


  • Jim Morrison, age 27 – The spooky tune was partly inspired by the country song “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” with some inspiration from the 1950s spree killings of Billy Cook, and even a bit of philosophical wisdom from Heidegger. The Doors performed “Riders On The Storm” only twice in concert, including their final concert when Jim Morrison had a nervous breakdown on stage. Seven months later, it entered the Billboard chart, eerily on the same day that Jim Morrison passed away. Morrison was only 27 years old, and is credited as one of the first members of a cultural phenomenon known as the “27 Club.” This term began to appear in the media in late 90s after the death of Kurt Cobain (who also died at the age of 27) and refers to a group of musicians and entertainers, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison to name a few, who all died at the age of 27.

Music Heard On This Episode


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