Five Composers Who Died Tragically Young

If you ask music lovers to name a composer who died too young, many will think of Mozart, who died just a month before his 36th birthday, in the midst of composing his Requiem.

Of course, the loss of Mozart was a devastating blow to music. But there have been other composers who died at even younger ages.

Here are five composers who died far too young, along with one of their most famous compositions:

George Butterworth (1885-1916)
Died at 31 years old

George Butterworth

George Butterworth

George Butterworth was a precocious musician who became President of the University Music Club at Oxford.

He counted Ralph Vaughan Williams among his many friends and went with him on trips to collect folk music in the field. He even helped Vaughan Williams during the composition of Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony.

When WWI broke out, Butterworth traveled to France. He survived the unimaginable horrors of the trenches until 1916, when a sniper shot him in the head during the Battle of the Somme. His commander wrote that he was “a brilliant musician in times of peace, and an equally brilliant soldier in times of stress.” His body was never recovered.

His lovely work “A Shropshire Lad” for orchestra will appeal to anyone who loves pastoral English music.

George Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad (1912)

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Died at 31 years old

Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert

Most music lovers adore Schubert, and his early death is among the most heartbreaking in classical music history. We’ve written about Schubert’s illness and death before.

Like lots of young people, Schubert enjoyed partying and rebelling against the status quo. He contracted syphilis in his mid-twenties and died at 31, sickened by the mercury poisoning that was commonly used to treat syphilis at the time.

Schubert’s final piano sonata is shadowy, melancholy, and transcendent:

Franz Schubert: Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D.960

Jehan-Aristide Paul Alain (1911-1940)
Died at 29 years old

Jehan Alain

Jehan Alain

Jehan Alain was born into a musical family, with his father, brother, and sister all musicians. He won prizes at the Paris Conservatoire and began performing on the organ in Paris.

He was also interested in motorcycles, and during World War II, he used a motorcycle to do reconnaissance work. One day in 1940, he came around a corner and realized German soldiers were on the road ahead of him. A fight ensued after he refused to surrender, and he was killed in the skirmish.

His brief “Deuxième fantaisie” for organ, written in 1936, is otherworldly: a suitable musical epitaph for a musical life cut far too short.

Jehan Alain: Deuxième fantaisie (1936)

Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)
Died at 24 years old

Lili Boulanger

Lili Boulanger

Lili Boulanger was one of the great prodigies in classical music history. At the age of two, no less a family friend than composer Gabriel Fauré noticed that she had perfect pitch.

She studied at the Paris Conservatoire, beginning her studies by tagging along at the age of four with her older sister Nadia. Lili’s education and career blossomed from there.

In 1912, she competed in the prestigious Prix de Rome competition, but became too sick to finish. But in 1913, on her second try, she finished the competition and won the prize, becoming the first woman to ever do so. The work that won was a masterpiece of a cantata called Faust et Hélène.

Tragically, she was unable to write many more large scale works due to deteriorating health. She died of Crohn’s disease in 1924. Her devastated sister Nadia went on to become one of the most influential music teachers ever, living until the age of 92.

Lili Boulanger: Faust et Hélène

Guillaume Lekeu (1870-1894)
Died a day after his 24th birthday

Guillaume Lekeu

Guillaume Lekeu

Guillaume Lekeu is the youngest composer on this list. He was born in Belgium and wrote his first piece at 15. When he turned 18, his family moved to Paris and he began studying under legendary composers like César Franck and Vincent d’Indy.

In March 1893, his violin sonata was premiered. It is a lush and unforgettable work, and it proved that Lekeu was on the brink of a major career.

But a freak tragedy occurred a few months later: the composer ate contaminated sorbet. He contracted typhoid fever and died a day after his twenty-fourth birthday.

Guillaume Lekeu: Violin Sonata in G (1892/93)

These five composers who died so young are five of the biggest what-ifs of music history. We can only guess as to how they might have shaped the art if they’d lived, and what incredible music we might have been lucky to hear. That said, we’re fortunate to have the works that we do, and those continue to live on.

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  1. Alexei Stanchinsky, died 26 years old under mysterious circumstances. A composer probably better than most of those listed above (exception, of course, Schubert).
    Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga (27 January 1806 – 17 January 1826 – 20 years old) was a Spanish Basque composer known as “the Spanish Mozart”.
    Mendelssohn (38) and Purcell (36) were also young when they died.

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