Three Geniuses That Died Young

BY LAWRENCE TOPPMAN

 

Three geniuses who died young

 

Any artist who still has a creative spark dies too early, whether he’s 56 (Beethoven) or 69 (Wagner) or even 87 (Verdi). But we mourn most deeply the ones who don’t reach half a normal lifespan. So the three greatest tragedies in classical music must be the passing of Wolfgang Mozart, Franz Schubert and George Gershwin – who had a lot in common, despite living in different centuries.

 

Each died in his 30s at the height of his productivity: Schubert at 31, Mozart at 35, Gershwin at 37. Each was carried off quickly by disease: Mozart probably by rheumatic fever (authorities disagree), Schubert probably by typhoid fever, Gershwin by a brain tumor.

 

All came from lower-middle-class or middle-class families: Mozart’s father taught and composed music, Schubert’s was a parish schoolmaster, Gershwin’s a factory foreman.

 

All were masterful composers of popular songs; Schubert and Gershwin gained so much fame that way that more serious works got overshadowed in their lifetimes.

 

Each had operatic ambitions. Mozart dominated that field; Schubert wrote 17 operas and operettas (“Fierrabras” being perhaps the best); Gershwin wrote just two, the one-act “Blue Monday” and “Porgy and Bess,” but composed Broadway musicals that were nearly sung-through. “Of Thee I Sing,” the most revolutionary, was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize.

 

Each considered the piano his main instrument, played well – exceptionally so, in Mozart’s and Gershwin’s cases – and enjoyed performing for friends in private. Mozart and Gershwin also played their works in public, though Schubert rarely did.

 

Though all three worked with multiple librettists, poets or lyricists, each found one ideal partner. Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte teamed for “Le Nozze de Figaro,” “Don Giovanni” and “Cosi Fan Tutte.” Wilhelm Müller wrote the poems in Schubert’s greatest song cycles, “Die schöne Müllerin” and “Winterreise,” plus other numbers. Elder brother Ira collaborated on virtually all of George’s important work.

 

Most crucially, all three were innovating when they died. Mozart had become the leading composer of German and Italian opera and was expanding history’s greatest body of piano concertos. Schubert was the leading symphonist alive after his ninth, the longest great orchestral piece up to his time. Gershwin was the only American shifting easily among movies, stage works and concert halls. (Bernstein shared his versatility but wrote just one film score.)

 

That they died young is sad. That they died before giving the world half of the masterworks they could have created is tragic.

 

P.S. No discussion of early classical losses is complete without “The Spanish Mozart,” Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, so called because they shared first and second baptismal names and a birthday (Jan. 27, 50 years apart). The teenaged Arriaga wrote a delightful symphony, three elegant string quartets, an opera (now lost except for an overture) and many instrumental and vocal compositions. Heaven knows what he might have done if tuberculosis and/or exhaustion hadn’t killed him ten days before his 20th birthday.

 

The Gershwin Big Band

 

Charlotte Concerts presents “An American Rhapsody: The Gershwin Songbook” on Thursday, Feb. 17. The concert begins at 7:30 p.m. in McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square, 345 N. College St. To learn more about the show, go here.

 

To buy tickets, go here.

FEBRUARY 4   I  LAWRENCE TOPPMAN