Dead Geniuses

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart drawing image

Mozart was 35 years old when he died. By that time, he had composed about 600 musical pieces (that we know of). He started playing the piano at 3, and at 5 he was composing. As those who have seen the movie Amadeus know, he died before he could finish one of his greatest compositions, his Requiem. It didn’t happen like in the movie (which is fiction, based on a play), but he did die of a strange illness:

The cause of Mozart’s death cannot be determined with certainty. His death record listed “hitziges Frieselfieber” (“severe miliary fever”, referring to a rash that looks like millet seeds), a description that does not suffice to identify the cause as it would be diagnosed in modern medicine. Dozens of theories have been proposed, including trichinosis, influenza, mercury poisoning, and a rare kidney ailment. The practice of bleeding medical patients, common at that time, is also cited as a contributing cause. However, the most widely accepted version is that he died of acute rheumatic fever; he had had three or even four known attacks of it since his childhood, and this particular disease has a tendency to recur, leaving increasingly serious consequences each time, such as rampant infection and heart valve damage.

Could modern medicine have saved him? Probably. What if he had lived to be 77 like Haydn, 65 like Bach, or even 56 like Beethoven? What if he had lived to be 120? What if he was still alive and healthy (not a frail decrepit old man) today? What if these other genius composers I just mentioned also had lived longer or not died? That’s worth imagining, no?

Some individuals definitely contribute more to humanity than others (lets not kid ourselves). These statistical aberrations don’t happen very often, and it is regrettable to see them extinguished by random diseases, caused by old age or not. Don’t get me wrong, any loss of life is sad (except for some evil tyrants, maybe), but some deaths create bigger ripples in humanity’s pond than others.

Schubert drawing

Another example of a terrible loss is Schubert, who died at 31 having composed almost 1,000 pieces, including about 600 lieders, 9 symphonies (almost 10), a lot of chamber music, piano sonatas, etc. His music was fantastic, of a great depth, and there’s no doubt that he was still learning and still had something to say at the time of his death (listen to the piano sonata D960, composed in his last months).

There are countless examples, some died young, some old, but they are equally gone. Einstein. Nabokov. Darwin. Jefferson. Da Vinci. Rembrandt. And Hawking isn’t getting any healthier either. What more could these people have contributed with more time, and how would that have changed things for the rest of us?

Would I currently be listening to Beethoven’s best symphony, his eleventh (can’t be the tenth, because his best ones are odd-numbered 😉 )? Would we know more about the laws of the universe? Would whole new technologies have been developed? How many great paintings, books, plays and tunes that never got created would be iconic in our shared culture? How would some of these geniuses contribute to the culture of the internet age? To the exchange of ideas that is currently taking place all over the world?

I do think these are things worth thinking about, even if we can’t get an answer regarding these people.

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3 Responses to “Dead Geniuses”

  1. Ducker Says:

    My guess is they died young due to the fact being so busy inventing stuff, so it kind of wore em out too soon…just an idea.

  2. 1dumblonde Says:

    Or Marie Curie, Rosa Franklin (DNA research), Maria Gaetana Agnesi (mathematician, linguist).

    It is interesting to imagine them in our age. Would Hypatia be a public intellectual like Noam Chomsky or a professor tucked away in a research institution?

  3. Jepsert Says:

    Oh- someone just wrote a dissertation about Mozart’s cause of death: they say it was Edema, which was also found to be very common in Vienna at that time.

    And about their production- remember Einstein, who wasted the last 30 years of his life chasing the connection between the laws of the micro-universe and the macro-universe, and never found it.

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