Many of classical music’s greatest composers died at astonishingly young ages. Mozart was 35; Schubert, 31. George Bizet passed away at age 37, convinced his opera Carmen was a flop.
Bad luck? Lousy medical care? The peculiar strain of being an artistic genius? All may have played a role, but economists Karol Jan Borowiecki of the University of Southern Denmark and Georgios Kavetsos of the London School of Economics have a different theory—one that just might apply to you and me.
Their examination of the lifespans and life stories of prominent composers born in the 19th century, recently published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, finds a link between reduced longevity and the intensity of peer competition.
Increased stress levels may have resulted from "unfulfilled expectations or lack of recognition by one's peers, especially among music clusters where he most skilled peers are located, making it even harder to excel."
Their analysis suggests being forced to fight for status and recognition—not to mention commissions, performances, and pupils—took a physical toll on these artists. It provides evidence that the stress of competition—particularly among fellow composers living in the same city—literally took years off their lives.
Borowiecki and Kavetsos focused on 144 composers ranked by Charles Murray in his 2003 book Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts. To come up with a measure of peer competition, they calculated the average number of fellow composers who lived in each subject's city or region, as well as the quality of these competitors' work (as measured by Murray).
In addition, they looked at “the share of a life the composer spent in one of the geographic clusters with the largest composer populations, namely Paris and Vienna.”
They found that composers’ longevity was reduced if they lived surrounded by "a larger group of peers,” or in an area featuring competitors “of a higher quality.” This effect was found consistently, whether the city in question was large or small, and remained consistent after accounting for individual life-threatening events such as wars and pandemics.
The researchers speculate that "increased stress levels" played a role in their untimely deaths. This, they write, may have resulted from "unfulfilled expectations or lack of recognition by one's peers, especially among music clusters where the most skilled peers are located, making it even harder to excel."
They note that, in early 19th-century Europe (and the United States), "even very large cities did not have more than one concert hall or opera house. Hence only one composer at a time could have his works rehearsed and performed at a given facility."
In economist-speak, that amounts to "limited access to production resources." For the rest of us, it suggests deep levels of frustration, as your work gets crowded out by that of your better-connected competitors. And that can produce unhealthy levels of stress, especially if the peers you run into regularly on the street are thriving.
Seen in this light, that cliché of film Westerns—"This town isn't big enough for both of us"—seems less like a threat, and more like a cry for help.
Of course, things have changed a lot since the 19th century. We have a much better understanding of stress and its physical manifestations, and more effective methods of addressing it.
But in this interconnected world, a growing number of professionals are starting to feel—with some justification—that we’re competing for employment and recognition not just with peers in our own cities, but ones located all around the globe. That can produce a sense of working harder but never catching up that isn't far from the scenario the researchers describe.
Mozart may have been more ahead of his time than we realize.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.