Despite tragically short lives, these ten classical composers left behind a wealth of wonderful music. This list means to honour those lives and that music as well as the great music that could have been.
1. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
For many musicians and music lovers, Mozart is simply the greatest composer who has ever lived. For (most of) the rest, he shares the honour—and forms a kind of sacred trinity—with Bach and Beethoven.
Born to a musical family in Vienna, he began composing at the tender age of five. During the next 30 years, he wrote about 600 works in all, including some 20 operas, numerous symphonies and concertos for various instruments, and a significant body of chamber music and sacred music.
His last work was the great Requiem in D minor, sadly left unfinished by his death at the age of 35—from somewhat unclear, but probably natural causes. Had he lived only a few more years, the whole history of Western music might have been changed in ways now difficult to imagine. But one thing we do know for certain: Mozart's legacy will last for as long as human beings still nurture a love for music.
2. Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Much brilliance went lost with the death of Austrian composer Franz Schubert at the young age of 31. Luckily for posterity, he left behind a surprisingly large body of music, including some 600 hundred art songs, several symphonies (not all completed), numerous works of chamber music, and more.
An early Romantic, deeply influenced by Beethoven, Schubert wrote music that lies at the very crossroads between the Classical and Romantic eras. His poetic sensibility and melodic imagination are almost unparalleled in the Western canon.
Sadly, Schubert never achieved the success he deserved during his lifetime, but was later hailed by critics as one of the greatest composers of his century. He has been cited as an influence by many of his peers, including Franz Liszt and Felix Mendelssohn.
3. Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Another of the Romantic era's bright talents, German composer Felix Mendelssohn is regarded as one of the leading musicians of his day, despite a somewhat more conservative outlook than many of his contemporaries.
The Wedding March from his incidental music to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is the one Mendelssohn piece everyone knows today. However, that doesn't do justice to the expanse and depth of his output, which includes symphonic, sacred, and chamber music. He also led a revival of interest in the works of Bach, which helped establish the latter's music as one of the great treasures of European culture.
Felix Mendelssohn died from a stroke at the age of 38, only a few months after his beloved sister Fanny, herself a talented musician. His legacy has proved lasting, despite some criticism of his perceived conventionality and an attempt by the Nazi regime to discredit his work.
4. Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)
A highly accomplished pianist, Frederic Chopin wrote some of the most celebrated pieces for the instrument, which lies at the centre of his entire musical output. Born and raised in Poland, he spent most of his adult life in France, but remained deeply attached to his native country and its music, which had a profound influence on his work.
Often regarded as the typical troubled genius of the Romantic era, Chopin is also known for his tempestuous love affair with French novelist Georges Sand and his friendship with fellow composer and piano virtuoso Franz Liszt.
Chopin suffered from ill health throughout his life and died, apparently from tuberculosis, at the age of 39. He was buried in Paris but, at his request, his heart was taken to Poland.
5. Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
The great British Baroque composer Henry Purcell has had a significant influence on many of his 20th and 21th century compatriots, including Benjamin Britten and Michael Nyman, as well as on several pop artists.
Before his death at the age of 36, he produced a large body of songs, choral works, and music for the stage. His most famous piece today is the aria “When I Am Laid in Earth” (Dido's Lament) from the opera Dido and Aeneas—the only great British opera written before the 20th century. The beloved aria, quite popular in pop and rock circles, has been performed by artists ranging from Jeff Buckley to Klaus Nomi.
Purcell's Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, which was also played at his own funeral, was famously adapted by Wendy Carlos for the soundtrack of cult movie A Clockwork Orange.
6. Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
One of the first great Romantic composers, Carl Maria von Weber is best known for his operas, of which Der Freichutz is the most important. His oeuvre also includes the popular concert waltz Invitation to the Dance and a number of valued works for woodwind instruments.
Weber's operas had a strong influence on many later composers, most significantly Richard Wagner. Der Freichutz, the story of a marksman who sells his soul to the devil, was the first great Romantic opera in German, and as such had a decisive impact in the development of the genre.
The German composer died aged 39 in London, following the premiere of his opera Oberon. His unfinished comic opera Die drei Pintos was completed some 60 years later by Gustav Mahler.
7. Georges Bizet (1838-1875)
Another Romantic composer whose life was cut tragically short, Georges Bizet is famous for Carmen, one of the most loved and frequently performed operas of all time, whose impact extends from the world of classical music to that of popular culture.
Based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée, Carmen tells of the love affairs of a passionate gypsy, and features some of the most instantly recognisable opera pieces of all time, such as the Habanera and the Toreador Song. Bizet's earlier work Les pecheurs de perles features one of the most loved operatic duets “Au fond du temple saint”.
Bizet died unexpectedly at the age of 36, only three months after the lukewarm premiere of Carmen, and was thus unable to witness any of the amazing success the opera would later achieve.
8. Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736)
Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi was only 26 when he died of tuberculosis. Plagued by illness since childhood, he nevertheless produced a considerable number of works, of which his Stabat Mater, written the year before his death, and the comic opera La serva padrona are his claims to fame.
The latter, originally an intermezzo to another work, was highly influential in the development of the opera buffa genre, while the former, a masterpiece of spiritual beauty, was one of the most popular sacred works of its day. Indeed, it still remains among the most celebrated of the many settings of the Stabat Mater hymn.
Despite his short life, Pergolesi had a significant impact on his contemporaries and successors. It's difficult not to wonder what this gifted composer would have accomplished if only he had lived for at least another decade.
9. George Gershwin (1898-1937)
Undoubtedly one of the greatest American composers of all time, George Gershwin successfully bridged the gap between classical music and jazz, while writing some of the most recognisable music of the 20th century.
Often collaborating with his older brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin, he wrote for Broadway as well as Hollywood, and also produced several orchestral works before his death at the age of 38.
Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin's iconic composition for solo piano and jazz band, succeeds in bringing together the worlds of jazz and classical like no other work has done before or since. The song “Summertime” from his opera Porgy and Bess has been recorded and performed by many famous rock and jazz artists, including Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin.
10. Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)
One of the most important exponents of the bel canto style of Italian opera, Vincenzo Bellini achieved significant success and critical acclaim before his untimely death at the age of 33.
He wrote 11 operas, most of them enthusiastically received by the audiences of his time. Of these, Norma, initially not among his greatest hits, has had the most enduring popularity and still forms part of the regular opera repertoire. “Casta Diva” from Norma is one one of the most popular and frequently performed bel canto arias. One famous version is that of legendary soprano Maria Callas.
Great opera composers such as Giuseppe Verdi and even Richard Wagner, who was notoriously critical of many of his peers, expressed their admiration for Bellini's work.