The ninth symphony is one of the most celebrated and challenging forms of musical expression. It is also the source of a strange and enduring superstition that has haunted some of the greatest composers in history. The curse of the ninth is the belief that a composer’s ninth symphony is destined to be their last and that they will die while or after writing it.
The curse of the ninth is often associated with Ludwig van Beethoven, who died after completing his ninth symphony, which is widely regarded as his masterpiece and one of the most influential works of classical music. Beethoven’s ninth symphony, also known as the Choral Symphony, features the famous “Ode to Joy” finale, which is a hymn to humanity and universal brotherhood.
Another composer who fell victim to the curse of the ninth was Franz Schubert, who died before finishing his tenth symphony. Schubert’s ninth symphony, also known as the Great Symphony, is a monumental work that showcases his lyrical and harmonic genius. Schubert’s unfinished tenth symphony was only discovered decades after his death and remains a mystery to musicologists.
However, the originator and most obsessed with the curse of the ninth was Gustav Mahler, who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mahler was a prolific and visionary composer who wrote nine symphonies and several other orchestral works. Mahler was aware of the fate of Beethoven and Schubert and feared that he would share their destiny.
“The superstition is that if you write nine symphonies you are fated to die. It’s a very powerful idea. It’s like an ancient curse.”
Mahler tried to outsmart the curse by not calling his ninth symphony a symphony, but rather a song cycle. He also wrote a symphonic work called Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), which he considered his true ninth symphony. He hoped that by skipping the number nine, he would be able to write more symphonies without invoking the curse.
However, Mahler’s plan did not work. He died before completing his tenth symphony, seemingly confirming the curse. His tenth symphony was left unfinished, with only sketches and fragments of the score. Mahler’s death also coincided with a turbulent period in his personal and professional life, as he faced marital problems, anti-Semitism and health issues.
Mahler was not aware of other composers who had written more than nine symphonies, such as Antonín Dvořák, Louis Spohr and Franz Joseph Haydn. These composers did not seem to be affected by the curse of the ninth and continued to write more symphonies until their natural deaths.
The curse of the ninth has been debunked and dismissed by many musicologists and historians, who argue that it is a coincidence and that there is no causal link between the number of symphonies and the death of composers. They point out that many factors can influence a composer’s lifespan, such as genetics, lifestyle, environment and historical context.
The curse of the ninth is also challenged by contemporary composers who have written more than nine symphonies without any ill effects. Some examples are Philip Glass, Dmitri Shostakovich and David Matthews. These composers have shown that the ninth symphony is not a limit but a challenge to overcome and surpass.
The curse of the ninth is a fascinating phenomenon that reveals how music can inspire fear and awe in equal measure. It also shows how composers can use their creativity and courage to defy superstition and create lasting works of art.