1943 — Sergei Rachmaninoff dies

Born in 1873, Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of the greatest Russian composers of the Twentieth Century, and one of the last Russians to compose in the Romantic style. In addition, he is widely regarded as one of the greatest pianists in history. Ironically, his greatest fame came after he moved to the West in the wake of the 1917 Russian revolution. His works – which include four concertos, three symphonies and 24 preludes – tended to emphasize the piano, the instrument he knew and loved best. As a writer for piano, he explored a wider range of its capabilities than almost any other composer.

Rachmaninoff was diagnosed with melanoma in late 1942, although only his family was told of the diagnosis – he himself was not. He died a few months later, only four days short of his seventieth birthday, and was buried in a cemetery in New York. His will had called for him to be buried on his property in Switzerland, the Villa Senar, but World War Two made that impossible.

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1881 — Modest Mussorgsky dies

Modest Mussorgsky was a member of the Russian Romantic composer’s group known as ‘The Five’ – the other four being Mily Balakirev (the leader), César Cui, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin. They set out to produce music that was specifically Russian. Mussorgsky in particular drew inspiration from Russian folk tales, notably in his best known work, the tone poem ‘Night on Bald Mountain’.

After 1874, Mussorgsky’s career was clearly past its prime. The composer drifted out of touch with old friends, or fell out with them entirely – both largely the result of years of alcohol consumption catching up with him. In early 1881, he was hospitalised after suffering a number of seizures. He died a week short of his 42nd birthday, and was buried in St Petersburg, where he had lived for thirty years.

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1883 — Richard Wagner dies

One of the greatest of the German composers, Wagner is best known for his Ring Cycle, or Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) in full. His earlier Tristan and Isolde is seen by some as marking the start of modern music (by which, of course, they do not mean pop music).

Wagner was 69 when he died, and he left behind a towering legacy. He influenced almost all later composers, although in some cases (such as Debussy and Tchaikovsky) this influence was seen in their efforts to avoid his shadow. A friend of Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher’s first major work was a glorification of Wagner’s compositions (although the prickly Nietzsche later found fault with his one time idol). Finally, Wagner’s popularity also popularised his views – which included large elements of racism and anti-semitism – views which would continue to dominate German culture until at least 1945, when his greatest German fan committed suicide.

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1901 — Guiseppe Verdi dies

Alongside Richard Wagner, Verdi was the preeminent composer of operas in his era, with works such as “Aida”, “Il Trovatore” and “La Traviata” to his credit. He was also famed for the “Messa da Requiem”, an oratorio he wrote in tribute to his friend Alessandro Manzoni. Verdi loved the works of Shakespeare, and several of his operas were adaptations of the Bard’s plays.

Verdi is known to have been active in the cause of Italian unification, although he was horrified by the assassination of King Umberto I in 1900. The composer suffered a stroke on January 21, 1901, and clung to life for another six days before dying. His funeral remains the single largest public event in Italian history, and his friend Arturo Toscanini conducted the massed orchestra of musicians from throughout Europe who came to pay tribute to Verdi at it.

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1897 — Johannes Brahms dies

A composer of the Romantic school, Johannes Brahms in his 64 years associated with many of the other greats of his era, such as Liszt and Schumann. His works include a dozen sonatas, four symphonies, four concertos, a number of waltzes and a great number of variations, a form which he is particularly known for.

Brahms developed cancer of either the liver or the pancreas which eventually killed him. He is buried in the Zentralfriedhof of Vienna, where he lived in his last years.

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1787 — Christoph Willibald Gluck dies

Most famous for his operas, Gluck was an Austrian who first came to prominence as a composer in Italy. Later, he moved to Paris, where his works came to synthesise elements of the Italian and French operatic styles, invigorating the form. One of the most important elements of his approach was to diminish the importance of the singers in favour of a greater concentration on the actual story being related.

His most famous opera is probably Orfeo ed Euridice, first performed in 1762, which showed early moves in his reformist direction. Later works, such as Alceste (1767) and Paride ed Elena (1770), were even more innovative. At the time of his death, Gluck had created 35 full-length operas, plus a number of shorter works and ballets. The composer most directly influenced by him was probably Antonio Salieri, but his reach is great – Mozart, Berlioz and Wagner, among others, all cited him as an influence on their work.

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1759 — George Frideric Handel dies

Handel was 74 years old at the time of his death. Unmarried, he left much of his estate to a niece. He had experienced loss of vision after a botched cataract operation eight years earlier, which had curtailed his output.

Handel’s musical compositions included 42 operas, 29 oratorios, numerous arias, chamber music, a large number of ecumenical pieces, odes and serenatas, 16 organ concerti and more than 120 cantatas, trios and duets. His best known work is the Messiah oratorio, which featured the Hallelujah Chorus. Handel was an unusual composer. Influenced by the great composers of the Italian Baroque and the middle-German polyphonic choral traditions, he also introduced a range of unusual instruments into his compositions, including the viola d’amore, violetta marina, lute, trombone, clarinet, small high cornet, theorbo, horn, lyrichord, double bassoon, viola da gamba, bell chimes, positive organ and harp – many of which would become more commonly used by composers and musicians as a result of Handel’s popularisation of them.

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1828 — Franz Schubert dies

Franz Peter Schubert was only 31 when he died of what doctors diagnosed as typhoid fever (although others claimed that it was tertiary syphilis). The Austrian was one of the most prolific composers of his era, writing more than 600 songs, 7 symphonies – not including his famous “Unfinished Symphony” (of which he wrote two movements before his death) – 5 operas and 21 sonatas.

His 600 songs were primarily Lieder, and Schubert’s greatest influence is found in this form – understandably, as in doing so many of them he explored nearly every possible variation of them. There is no telling what he might have accomplished had he lived longer – even in his relatively brief span, his style changed and evolved markedly. His epitaph reads “Here music has buried a treasure, but even fairer hopes” – and rarely has anyone had a more accurate epitaph.

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1864 — Giacomo Meyerbeer dies

Born in 1791 in Germany, Giacomo Meyerbeer was one of the foremost exponents of the musical and theatrical form known as ‘The Grand Opera’. In his day he was one of the most famed composers in all of Europe, but his reputation has suffered since his death – largely due to the attacks on his character and works by his former student Richard Wagner.

The motivation for these attacks is complex – Wagner was clearly jealous of his teacher’s success and the wealth that it brought him, but also despised Meyerbeer due to the older man’s Jewishness. Among other wild accusations, Wagner accused Meterbeer of bribing critics to ensure favourable reviews.

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1827 — Ludwig van Beethoven dies

Ludwig van Beethoven is one of the most well-known composers ever. His Fifth Symphony’s opening bar is perhaps the most recognisable musical passage in Western culture – “da da da DAH!” (It’s also the Morse code for V, which is the Roman numeral for 5. Sam Morse apparently liked complicated puns.)

Born in Bonn, Germany in the year 1770, he would rise from relatively humble beginnings to become one of the great composers of his (or any other) era. In addition to his nine symphonies, he also wrote a wide variety of sonatas, concertos, string quartets and a single opera. Among his better known compositions are “Fur Elise” and the Triple Concerto.

He died on March 26, 1827 in Vienna, after a lengthy series of illnesses that had left him deaf and bedridden. His funeral was a massive undertaking, and mourners lined the streets of Vienna as his body was taken to the cemetery. He left behind him a vast musical legacy, and remains one of the most played and performed of composers even today.

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Green Onions — The Blues Brothers
Decomposing Composers — Monty Python

1928 — Claude Debussy dies

One of the most popular and influential of all French composers, Claude Achille Debussy was on August 22, 1862. Debussy was a tireless experimenter who was not satisfied to stay within the bounds of what his teachers taught, and this quality informs the majority of his compositions. For instance, he was the first European composer to show the influence of gamelan. By the turn of the century, he was not merely seen as one of the greatest living composers in France, but in most of Central Europe.

Debussy’s death from cancer occurred during the final months of World War One. He died in Paris while that city was being bombarded by the German Spring Offensive. As such, despite being one of the nation’s most honoured sons, he was buried with a minimum of ceremony. After the war concluded, he was reinterred in a style more fitting his influence and status.

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1886 — Franz Liszt dies

Born in Hungary on October 22, 1811, Franz Liszt spent much of his life traveling. A large portion of his adolescence was spent in Paris, and it was here, on April 20, 1832, that he saw the great Paganini playing violin. Liszt was inspired by the master’s performance, and resolved to become as great a pianist as Paganini was a violinist.

By 1835, Liszt was a touring virtuoso and composer, rapidly building a reputation across all of Europe. By 1842, his fame was such that the term Lisztomania had been coined to describe it. He was the John Lennon of his day, although more temperate about comparing himself to Jesus. Liszt donated a large portion of his fees to charity – in fact, by 1857, this portion was virtually the entirety.

After an injury in 1881, Liszt’s health began to decline, and his compositions from this point onward show an increasing preoccupation with mortality. He finally died of pneumonia, although it has been suggested that a certain degree of medical malpractice may have contributed to his demise.

After his death, Liszt’s close friend Camille Saint-Saëns dedicated his third symphony to him in memorial.

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1826 — Carl Maria von Weber dies

Carl Maria von Weber was one of the earliest significant composers of what is now called the Romantic movement. His best known works include his operas Der Freischütz, Euryanthe and Oberon, and the Konzertstück (Concert Piece) in F minor (a work for piano).

In addition to his composing, von Weber was also a noted for his orchestration, a music journalist, and an engraver. The last of these he actually taught himself – he wanted to be able to engrave his own compositions.

He was 39 years old when he died of tuberculosis while visiting London. Although his remains were buried there, they were later exhumed and reburied in Dresden at the instigation of Richard Wagner. Von Weber had been director of the Opera since 1817.

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