Curse of the ninth
The curse of the ninth is a superstition connected with the history of classical music. In essence, it is the belief that a "ninth symphony" is destined to be a composer's last; i.e. that the composer will be "fated" to die after writing it, or before completing a "tenth". To those who give credence to the notion, a composer who produces a ninth symphony has reached a decisive landmark – and to then embark on a tenth is a challenge to "fate".
The idea is really a folk-notion that persists in popular journalism, and is not supported in musicology or serious music criticism. Though composers can indeed be found who died after achieving nine symphonies (the most famous example perhaps being Ludwig van Beethoven), "nine" is not a statistically predominant total in the history of the symphony. In addition, while some very prominent composers (e.g. Schubert, Dvořák, Spohr, Bruckner, Mahler, and Vaughan Williams) are regularly adduced as examples, several of them are only credited with having "composed nine symphonies" as a result of error or oversimplification (see below).
According to Arnold Schoenberg, this superstition began with Gustav Mahler, who, after writing his Eighth Symphony, wrote Das Lied von der Erde, which, while structurally a symphony, was able to be 'disguised' as a song cycle, each movement being a setting of a poem for soloist and orchestra. Then he wrote his Ninth Symphony and thought he had beaten the curse, but died with his Tenth Symphony incomplete.
In an essay about Mahler, Schoenberg wrote: "It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter."
The difficulties with this analysis are obvious. From Mahler's point of view, the only important victim of any "curse of the ninth" (Mahler is not known to have used the term) would have been Ludwig van Beethoven. Even Anton Bruckner (with whom Mahler had been closely associated) fails to qualify: Bruckner died before completing the work that is now played as his (unfinished) "Ninth Symphony", with the result that his symphonic total is eight if only the completed canonical works are counted – and ten if the list includes the early Study Symphony in F minor and the D minor Symphony now known as "No. 0" – both of them withdrawn by the composer. Bruckner was in fact superstitious about his own Ninth Symphony; but this was not because of any belief in a "curse of the ninth", but because it was in the same key as Beethoven's Ninth.
Franz Schubert's inclusion in any list is similarly problematic. Mahler would not even have considered Schubert to have written nine symphonies, as the "Great" C major Symphony was reckoned as "No. 7" in Mahler's time. And while that symphony is now numbered as a ninth (and was followed by a tenth that remained uncompleted), this reckoning includes a "seventh symphony" that never progressed beyond an un-orchestrated sketch – and assumes that the composer's long-sought-after "Gmunden-Gastein Symphony" is merely a fable.
Similarly, Antonín Dvořák's "New World" Symphony would not have been considered a "ninth" in Mahler's time, as the work was published as "No. 5", with four of Dvořák's earlier symphonies appearing only after his death. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Dvořák considered the score of his early C minor symphony lost (it did not resurface for two decades after his death, and had to wait a further 13 years for its first performance).
After Mahler, some composers used as examples of the curse include: Kurt Atterberg, Elie Siegmeister, Alfred Schnittke, Roger Sessions, Egon Wellesz, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Peter Mennin and Malcolm Arnold. However, many of these examples have elements which tend to work against the superstition: Schnittke wrote his Ninth and last symphony with his left hand while virtually paralysed and unable to speak from a series of strokes; the authenticity of the work finally performed as an interpretation of his manuscript is problematic. In any case a "Symphony No. 0" by Schnittke has been performed and recorded, so his total should be ten. Alexander Glazunov completed the first movement of his Ninth but worked on it no further for the 26 more years he lived. In an interview recorded at the time of its premiere, Malcolm Arnold stated that he intended his Ninth Symphony (his op. 128) to be his last; it proved to be so, but he was to live for another twenty years, reaching opus 142. Jean Sibelius is not usually cited as an example, although if one were to count Kullervo as his first symphony, the ill-fated Eighth was the ninth he worked on.
Some counterexamples are: Andrzej Panufnik (10; if one includes two early lost symphonies, 12), Hans Werner Henze (10; his ninth symphony was, like Beethoven's, choral), Eduard Tubin (10, died writing his eleventh symphony), William Schuman (10; his first two were withdrawn), Alun Hoddinott (10), David Diamond (11), Joachim Raff (11, as well as an early destroyed one), Edmund Rubbra (11; his ninth symphony was choral), Robert Simpson (11; his planned final 12th symphony was to be choral), Heitor Villa-Lobos, Darius Milhaud, and Alexander Moyzes (12 each), Vagn Holmboe (13, as well as four additional symphonies for strings alone), Roy Harris (13; he was more superstitious about the number 13 than the number 9, and so labelled his 13th as 14th), Glenn Branca (14, although Branca's definition of "symphony" is somewhat untraditional), Gloria Coates (15, although she only recognized and numbered her first six symphonies as "symphonies" after completing her 7th), Dmitri Shostakovich (15), Rued Langgaard (16 plus an unnumbered choral symphony, Sinfonia Interna), Henry Cowell (17), Allan Pettersson (17), Lev Knipper (20), Jānis Ivanovs (21), Mieczysław Weinberg (22), Nikolai Myaskovsky (27), Havergal Brian (32), Alan Hovhaness (67), Derek Bourgeois (72), and Leif Segerstam (285). Composers before Beethoven, such as Joseph Haydn (106) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (59), are not considered relevant to this superstition.
- Ethan Mordden, A Guide to Orchestral Music: The Handbook for Non-Musicians. New York: Oxford University Press (1980): 312. ISBN 9780198020301. "Though it is more a song-cycle than a symphony, this was to have been Mahler's Ninth Symphony—but superstition cautioned him. Beethoven and Schubert both died after completing their respective Ninths, and Bruckner died with his Ninth unfinished. ... He thought he saw a way out: give his Ninth Symphony a name—no number—thus leaping the verge unscathed. He could then go on to a "Ninth" (really his Tenth). But fate laughed at Mahler, and he, like his predecessors, died before he could complete a Tenth Symphony."
- Cooke, Deryck. Gustav Mahler: An Introduction to His Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
- Lebrecht, Norman. Mahler Remembered. New York: W.W. Norton, 1987.
- Mahler-Werfel, Alma. The Diaries, translated by Antony Beaumont. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.
- Dan Stehman, Roy Harris: An American Musical Pioneer. Boston: Twayne Publishers (1984): 163 – 169