and some counterfactual navel-gazing about what their music might have been like had they attained their biblically-allotted 70 years…
8. Georges Bizet (1837 – 1875) age 36
When Georges Bizet died in 1875, Carmen had failed to find a popular audience, but just a few months later, it was hailed as a masterpiece. This reappraisal may have had something to do with the composer’s death, but let’s be honest: it would have happened anyway. The opera’s dramatic power, thrilling orchestration, and hummable tunes destined it for greatness.
Carmen quickly became Tchaikovsky’s favorite opera, and it’s interesting to think about the artistic interaction that might have taken place between these two giants. Had Bizet lived until 1907, he would have outlived his Russian counterpart, encountering both the Pathétique Symphony as well as The Nutcracker. I think Bizet would have incorporated some of the sparkling innovations that Tchaikovsky brought to his latter works (wouldn’t you love to hear a Pearl Fishers with celesta?) and perhaps even dipped his toes into the new Impressionism of Ravel and Debussy.
7. Frederyck Chopin (1810 – 1849) age 39
If Chopin had lived to the age of 70, he would have been around for the era of mainline Romanticism, right in there with Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and, most importantly, Franz Liszt.
While it’s interesting to think about Liszt and Chopin, I doubt the latter would have had much effect on the former (Liszt would have created Lisztomania no matter what). But with Liszt effectively dominating the sphere of bravura showmanship, I imagine that Chopin would have developed a different side of the art of the piano, extending his harmonies further into the realm of Impressionism and maybe even into a kind of proto-Scriabinism.
Something tells me that Chopin’s mature works would have appealed in particular to Johannes Brahms, and that they might have given him an intellectual and emotional challenge.
6. Rudi Stephan (1887 – 1915) age 28
Music for Orchestra (1912)
This is one that I found out about doing research for this post, and boy am I glad I did!
Rudi Stephan was slated to be the next big thing in classical music until he was struck down in World War I. I think his music is nothing short of extraordinary, in particular, his opera Die ersten Menschen, which as echoes of Saint-Saëns, Scriabin, Dukas, Mahler, Bartok, Debussy and all kinds of other wonderful people.
This single opera makes me think he would have been a real thorn in the side of Richard Strauss (always a good thing) and would have had a humanizing effect on Schoenberg and Berg in their later works. Had he lived until 1957, maybe he would have popped out a film score or two, but I’m mostly interested in what he would have done for orchestral concert music. His two extant works in this vein are, confusingly, both called “Music for Orchestra” (maybe with a few more years, he would have gotten hip to titles) and I have to believe that his future efforts would have given us a good half-dozen modern classics.
5. Vladislas Zolotaryov (1942 – 1975) age 33
Alright, this one I’m including mainly just because I want more people to be aware of his music. Vladislas Zolotaryov composed and performed music for the Russian squeezebox instrument known as the bayan. Had he not committed suicide at the age of 33, would we all be listening to bayan music all the time now? Probably not. But his music for this instrument is so stirring, poetic, and visual, I can only imagine that he would have cranked out a film score or two, and we might all be the richer for it.
The track that I included is called “I’m Recalling Instances of Gloomy Sorrow” (a typical title for the dour Zolotaryov) and the album it comes from is a great way to start with this deeply spiritual composer.
4. Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (1756 – 1791) age 35
The issue here is obvious: had Mozart lived to the age of 70, he would have died just one year before Beethoven (assuming we’re granting Beethoven his true-to-life 56 years) and something tells me Vienna weren’t big enough for those two guns (not to mention Papa Haydn.)
I think we have to acknowledge that Beethoven benefited tremendously from the death of Mozart. Had Mozart lived, would Beethoven have been able to remain so in awe and so deferential to his elder colleague? Would he have performed Mozart’s concertos and sonatas? Or would he have grown bitter and resentful if he had been pitted against a living Mozart?
Let’s say Beethoven had gone along as he did irl. What would Mozart possibly have done with the “Eroica” symphony? Would he have tried to create an instrumental work of that breadth and daring? Somehow I doubt it, but I think he might have done what Beethoven couldn’t do: incorporate the best dramatic elements of Beethoven’s style into works for the operatic stage. And I have to imagine that Mozart would have pushed those stage works in a more ‘verismo’ direction, unlike the work’s of his wife’s cousin, Carl Maria von Weber, with whom he also would have been in competition.
3. George Gershwin (1898 – 1937) age 36
If we give George Gershwin his 70 years, that gets him to 1968. What would Gershwin’s last works have sounded like had he lived into the age of the Beatles?
The real point of departure here is Porgy and Bess, a masterful distillation of Tinpan Alley tunefulness and contemporary orchestral composition in the best Modernist tradition. I can only imagine that the history of American opera would look very different, with Gershwin producing real masterpieces into the second half of the 20th century that picked up where Porgy left off.
I also imagine that a real rivalry might have developed between Gershwin and Bernstein. On the Town (1944), Bernstein’s first major composition for the stage (both the ballet and the musical) is tremendously indebted to GG. I can’t imagine Gershwin not responding to this salvo, and incorporating some of Lenny’s new rhythmic ideas in his own works.
I imagine that Gershwin’s focus would have been on the stage and on the serious side of his music-making; I doubt he would have tried to keep pace with new developments in pop and bop into the 50’s and 60’s… but I also bet that he would have incorporated the best elements of those styles into his music in a totally organic way.
2. Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) age 31
If you’re Franz Schubert and you’re composing this in 1826, where do you go next?
Schubert, String Quartet No. 15, mvmt. 2
This is music that practically attacks the listener. It’s scalding hot and it is charged with musical meaning. I can’t help but wonder what Schubert, with his expertise in musico-textual interaction would have made of the music of Hector Berlioz. If he had lived but another two years, he could have heard it.
We already have examples of Schubert writing music in a meta-textual vein with the “Death and the Maiden” quartet. I think he might have attempted something along the lines of the Fantastique himself had he been exposed to the wildness of Berlioz. The two clearly had similar ambitions – Schuberts music was getting bigger and bigger, and perhaps he would have developed a Germanic Grand Opera tradition, building off of works by Weber, Schumann and Berlioz himself.
1. Lili Boulanger (1893 – 1918) age 24
I can’t imagine a bigger loss to the world of serious music than Lili Boulanger in the year 1918. Neither could her sister, Nadia. Easley Blackwood told me that Nadia would stage a day of mourning every year on the anniversary of her sister’s death, during which all of her students had to come pay their condolences. It’s little wonder why.
I first came into contact with Boulanger’s music when I was assigned to conduct her setting of Psalm 24:
For a 4-minute miniature, this piece packs a wallop. It leaps out of the gate with a ferocious intensity and a chest-beating swagger, but it’s not without its moments of introspection. I remember being blown away the first time I sat down to play through it.
Boulanger’s output was, naturally, quite limited, but in the few pieces she managed to compose, she displayed an uncanny absorption and reconfiguring of the very best strains of the contemporary music of her time: Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and d’Indy are represented in her work, but there is most striking is her daring originality. Where, for example, did the Vieille Prière Bouddhique come from?
Had she lived to 70, she would have lived to 1963. What directions she might have taken musically are anyone’s guess, but I think there’s an equally big loss on the socio-historical horizon: had Lili Boulanger lived longer, the classical music world would have been forced to reckon her among the very top rank of composers, and I can only imagine that with this inroad, many more lady composers might have come to prominence in the first part of the 20th century.
What’s interesting is that, because of her sister Nadia’s decades of mentorship, Lili’s music ended up influencing generations of composers. I don’t think any of them quite captured the spirit that made her music so extraordinary, but doesn’t Copland’s Appalachian Spring seem to take a number of cues from the opening of Lili’s “D’un matin de printemps”?