The Curse of the Ninth Haunted These Composers

Monday, October 17, 2016 - 10:11 AM

Artist Emil Orlik's famous 1902 etching of Gustav Mahler (flickr.com)

With Halloween approaching, let's take a minute to explore one of classical music's more ghoulish superstitions: The Curse of the Ninth. In a nutshell, the curse is the belief that a composer will die after completing their ninth symphony. Even though plenty of composers have written more than nine symphonies (see Haydn), the curse still looms over the music.

Let’s take a haunted stroll down memory lane and remember some victims of the classical world’s answer to the 27 Club.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Here’s where it all starts. Beethoven’s groundbreaking choral symphony, the ninth, also proved to be his last. He passed away a few years after the premiere, unable to finish what was surely a highly anticipated 10th. Beethoven’s symphonies were game-changers. Some composers who followed him emulated not only his innovative orchestration, but also the practice of dying after their ninth symphonies were in the books.

Anton Bruckner

Austrian composer Anton Bruckner fielded a lot of criticism in his day. One problem many critics voiced was his habit of constantly revisiting and tinkering his “finished” works. The urge to edit eventually did him in; Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony was unfinished when he died, in part because he kept backtracking and revising the previous eight. Even fate didn’t feel like waiting for him to finish up.

Antonín Dvořák

Dvořák’s popular ninth symphony, “From the New World,” was actually billed as his fifth at the time of its premiere. It wasn’t until four earlier symphonies were discovered after his death that “New World” was labeled as the ninth. The public might not have known about those earlier works, but fate definitely did — the “New World” symphony was the last symphony Dvořák would ever compose.

Gustav Mahler

Mahler was the first to believe in a superstition surrounding ninth symphonies. He freaked out and developed an obsession with the curse. After he completed his eighth symphony, Mahler came up with a clever plan to beat it. He wrote a piece of music (Das Lied von der Erde) that was a symphony in everything but name, but refused to actually call it a symphony. Then he got to work on Symphony No. 9, resting easy at the thought of beating the curse. But the powers that be didn’t buy Mahler’s trick play, and struck him down after he set to work on Symphony No. 10.

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Vaughan Williams had a monstrously productive career. But amidst the concerti, ballets, film music and choral settings, he only produced nine symphonies. Three weeks after the premiere of the ninth, he died suddenly. Although he was 86 at the time of his death, it still came as a shock. According to a family friend, Vaughan Williams seemed “absolutely normal” the day before his death. The next morning he took ill and died shortly after.

 

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Comments [7]

RUTH SCHUELER

Beethoven wrote only three symphonie, the Eroica, the Fifth and the Ninth

Oct. 25 2016 02:44 AM
William Zucker from Brooklyn, NY

I will ignore the comments that have no bearing and respond to those that do.

Schubert is not included because it could be demonstrably proven that he wrote more than nine symphonies and started others that remained in a fairly advanced state but were left incomplete, as was the so-called Unfinished.

The Grand Duo, despite what the pundits including Newbould tell us, is a symphony in everything but name (especially if one listens to the Joachim realization. It is more truly symphonic in its bearings than the so-called "Great," and Tovey in his writings recognized this. It is a properly orchestral symphony; the original four hand version is equivalent to a Beethoven symphony in a four hand setting.

Bruckner actually composed two early symphonies which he declined to include in his canon of nine. They are full fledged works of equal stature to his other early symphonies. Properly then, there are a total of eleven Bruckner symphonies, and one could say the same with Mahler as well, for his Tenth was left in a sufficiently complete state so that musicologists had a fairly good idea what Mahler had in mind, without the final refinements, of course.

Oct. 24 2016 10:09 AM
Nick from Tampa

I'm also surprised that Schubert was not included.

Oct. 22 2016 01:03 PM
Barry Owen Furrer from Lake Monticello, VA

@Aikijutsu~
Truth be told, I was a little letdown after reading your comment until realizing it was quite a grave undertaking.

Oct. 20 2016 08:56 PM
Aikijutsu from Pendleton, SC

Beethoven spent several decades composing. As of now, he's spent many decades decomposing.

Oct. 20 2016 12:04 PM
John Kounios from Philadelphia

Hey! You forgot Schubert!

Oct. 20 2016 11:52 AM
David from Flushing

People are still dying today who never died before.

Oct. 18 2016 04:52 PM

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