Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Curse of the 9th

Many years back in my music education I became aware of this horrible curse - something known as the Curse of the 9th. Since the curse is said to have started with Gustav Mahler and since today marks the 97th anniversary of his death, I thought this was just as good a time as any to do a little digging into this curse.

This superstition runs something like this - Any composer of symphonies from Beethoven onward, was doomed to die soon after completing a 9th symphony. Granted Mahler was a pretty superstitious fellow. He believed so strongly in this curse that after completing his 8th Symphony, he waited an entire year. He then entitled his next big orchestral work, not his 9th, but rather "A Symphony for One Tenor and One Alto Voice and Orchestra." He then finished off his 9th Symphony later that same year (1909) and began his tenth the following year. Unfortunately, he died before completing it. (As an interesting little quirk, Mahler was one of Hitler's favourite composers. The unfinished draft of Mahler's 10th had 1,945 bars of music. 1945 of course was the year Hitler died.)

Another composer supposedly afflicted by this curse was Franz Schubert, a younger contemporary of Beethoven. Perhaps Schubert's best known symphony is his "Unfinished" Symphony. This was not the last symphony he wrote however as today it is counted as his 8th. (He lived another 6 years after beginning this symphony and why it remained incomplete is not completely known. This actually screwed up the numberings for the remaining symphonies he wrote but I'll leave that little controversy for the musicologists to sort out.) He eventually completed his 9th, and was working on a draft score for a 10th, when, you guessed it, he died.

Antonin Dvorak also composed nine symphonies. He then lived another 11 years but never got around to number 10. Another, lesser known 19th century Austrian composer, Anton Bruckner probably could have finished a 10th symphony, but took his sweet old time composing his 9th. It took 18 months to finish the thing. Plus, he had a habit of taking time off from regular composing and heavily revising earlier works. Finally there was Alexander Glazunov, who began writing his 9th in 1910 and for reasons unknown, let the fledgling work gather dust until his death 26 years later.

While I find this all interesting, quirky reading, I don't really read much into this curse. 19th century orchestras steadily increased in size until the outset of World War One. Symphonies also became longer. Beethoven's 9th pushes an hour in length and Mahler's 3rd (probably the longest in standard repertoire) takes anywhere from 90 to 100 minutes depending on the conductor's exact tempo. By way of comparison a typical classical-era work by Haydn typically lasts 18-20 minutes.

Of course there are many exceptions to this "curse", but the composers I could come up with aren't exactly household names. Kurt Atterberg? Alfred Schnittke? Looks like all the famous ones really did die by this "curse" afterall, perhaps. The only major composer I can think of after Beethoven to have beaten the "Curse of the 9th" is Shostakovich, who wrote ten symphonies. Perhaps there IS something to this curse. Maybe all the famous ones really DO die shortly after number 9. It's all so confusing.

Ahhhhhhhh!! This is why I love least with him the symphony hadn't been invented yet.


Kiggavik said...

Interestingly, they exhumed most of the composers who had died from the "Curse of the 9th" and found they had copies of their 9th Symphonies that were partially erased. Yes, they were de-composing.

Arctic Hound said...

I found this to be one of the most interesting music articles that I've ever read. Normally I would skim through a post on classical music, but this one really captivated me.... could this be an early nominee for the next Nunies?

Laura said...

Shostakovich wrote 15 symphonies.

Way Way Up said...

I stand corrected, Shostakovitch did indeed write 15 symphonies....the curse strikes again?.....

Hermione said...

Shostakovich wrote 15. My theory is that if you can write some of the best music of the 20th century, avoid being executed or sent to the gulags by Stalin twice, survive a 900-day siege, write a symphony about it AND perform it during a battle, and be an incredible pianist, you can write more than nine symphonies before you die.

I had only heard of a few of the composers (other than Shosty) that have evaded the curse, including Schnittke, Phillip Glass, Henry Cowell, Edmund Rubbra, and David Diamond. Still, none of them are quite as well-known as Shostakovich. I guess the Finnish composer Leif Segerstam has written 253 symphonies, though.