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The Curse of the Ninth

29 October 2015

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Is it true that superstitions only apply to anxious, nervous human beings? Though a lot of people may think so, apparently superstitions are not too unusual in the world of the brilliant and prolific composers. Let’s take a look at the ‘curse of the ninth symphony,’ a belief that a composer will die after completing and performing their ninth symphony.

Many people may say that this is rubbish, but for the sake of the discussion, tenth symphonies in the classical music repertoire are rare. If we look into the history of classical music, there have been many composers who died right after or in the middle of completing their tenth symphonies.

It all started with Beethoven. He completed his ninth symphony around three years before his death and could only completed a rough draft of the tenth. The list continues with Franz Schubert, Antonín Dvorák, Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Kurt Atterberg, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Roger Sessions, Egon Wellesz, Alexander Glazunov and Malcolm Arnold. We should also not leave out Alfred Schnittke who completed his ninth symphony two years before his death in 1998, but only with extreme difficulty since the right-handed composer was paralyzed on the right side as a result of a stroke.

Gustav Mahler totally believed that composing more than nine symphonies was to invite death to his door, so he decided to do something different. After he finished composing Symphony No. 8, he went on to compose a collection of orchestral songs called Das Lied von der Erde. Sadly we know that the great man was never able to finish the ‘tenth’ symphony. Starting with the unfortunate personal crisis of finding out about his wife’s affair, Mahler died of a blood infection not long before he turned 51, leaving the first movement of his Symphony No. 10 and a portion of the third movement behind.

Concerning the death of his friend, another Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg wrote: “It seems that the ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if that something might be imparted to us in the tenth, which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not yet ready. Those who have written a ninth have stood too near to the hereafter." Others tried a different way, such as Sir Malcolm Arnold and Alexander Glazunov who each worked on their ninths and only then  ‘took a very long break.’ In the case of Glazunov, one can easily blame this on alcoholism, which might have affected his creativity, yet the fact remains that Glazunov never got to finish more than one movement of his ninth symphony. Malcolm Arnold also died in 2006 leaving nine symphonies behind.

But there are more composers who made it passed the ninth, aren’t there? Yes, certainly. Schubert and Bruckner crossed to the hereafter, having finished nine symphonies. Yet it seems like even in more recent times - the curse, or at least the fear of it, continues.

American composer Phillip Glass completed the tenth symphony right after his ninth in a high gear. There was never an official statement about it, but one can make a comfortable assumption that Glass did that so as not to challenge fate.

Intriguing enough, though it may not be death at your door, the curse can also take the form of something just as morbid. Dmitri Shostakovich seemed to conquer the death curse, yet due to censure by the Soviet authorities, even the mighty Shostakovich had to wait to release his 10th Symphony until after Stalin’s death.  In Peter Maxwell Davies’s case, the ‘prophecy’ almost came true. Almost a year after the premiere of his ninth symphony in 2012, the English composer who was already busy with his tenth found out that he had leukaemia. Fortunately Davies beat the curse by finishing his tenth symphony in a hospital bed while battling the illness.

Perhaps there is something to this curse after all.

Rina Sitorus

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