Looking back, music’s lines of development can seem deceptively clear. An example would be the transformation of the Classical age of Haydn and Mozart, by way of Beethoven and Schubert, into the Romantic era of Chopin and Wagner, all within less than a century.
But two of those composers, for instance, died young. What if they had lived longer?
When Mozart, for instance, died aged 35, probably from rheumatic fever, he had already created a shoal of masterworks in every current musical genre. Even so, his style at that point was developing as restlessly as it always had: the master contrapuntist of the Jupiter Symphony of 1788 was exploring, in parts of his Requiem three years later, a type of plangent homophony which seems almost simple by comparison.
He could have outlived Beethoven: and with a 70-year-old Mozart still on the scene, it’s inconceivable that Western music would have not turned out differently.
Purcell’s death at 36 turned out to be more momentous even than the world of English music understood at the time. Widely appreciated in his lifetime, Purcell’s talent was the latest of a rich and continuous line of development that stretched back from the early Baroque, by way of Dowland, the Elizabethan madrigalists, and the Tudor age of Tallis and Byrd, to the Renaissance era of Dunstable. If he had lived to compose several more, maybe English music would not have to wait until the 1940s, and Britten’s Peter Grimes, for the next one to come along
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