So this is fun, but also kind of inaccurate.
When Mahler was preparing to write his next symphony after the eighth, he was troubled by something. He was worried about a curse or misfortune that could befall him if he were to write (or even begin to attempt to write) a ninth symphony, as it seems that it could possibly be his last. After all, anyone with a relatively solid grasp of classical music and its history could tell you that Beethoven, Dvorak, Bruckner and Schubert and ultimately Mahler himself (not at all in that order) would all be finished at their ninth symphonies. It may surprise you to know that I don’t know Mahler personally, but I get the impression he may have been a pretty superstitious guy, so what did he do? Instead of numbering his next large, complicated, involved work for symphony and vocalists his ninth symphony, it became Das Lied von der Erde, which I listened to for the first time just recently. He completed the work, and went on to write another symphony, which he did number his ninth. We’ll get there in a bit, but first, let’s take a look at evidence for the infamous ‘curse of the ninth’, why it began, and then some problems with it.
Even for a not-so-literate classical music listener, ninth symphonies are impressively famous, kind of the magnum opus of its composer. There are Beethoven’s ninth, Dvorak’s ninth, Mahler’s ninth, Schubert’s ninth, Bruckner’s ninth, Vaughan Williams’ ninth, and even the less-known Louis Spohr only write nine symphonies (don’t get your panties in a wad, Spohr scholars; I’ll explain later). There seems to be something to that, no? Coincidence? Yeah, probably. But the idea got its big break not so much from Mahler’s superstition, but by a highly poetic, very well-spoken statement by none other than Arnold Schoenberg (it was in fact Schoenberg who claimed Mahler tried to ‘disguise’ his Das Lied as a song cycle instead of a symphony and thus trick fate. Who knows if that was really Mahler’s intention?). He said in an essay about Mahler:
“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.”
That sounds great and everything, and it’s a romantic idea (in my opinion), one of the suffering artist surrendering himself to his craft. Again, I’m taking most of this information from Wikipedia because it’s where I read the most about this idea. As the article points out, most of the examples given are the result of
oversimplification or error. While it’s nice to think that reaching the ninth is the pinnacle of a career and that a composer devoted himself entirely to his last effort, it’s not actually that way. While it would, in some ways, make sense that composers (like anyone) should improve (or at least develop) as they continue to write, making their later works more personal, individual or successful, that isn’t always the case (as well as it being highly subjective). Let’s take a look for a moment at some possible other candidates for the curse of the ninth:
While Sibelius only has seven symphonies to his name (each one a delight), it is known that he had written or was in some stage of writing an eighth, which he destroyed and of which exists nothing. If, however, one includes his Kullervo as a symphony (rather arbitrarily), then his unfinished or destroyed eighth would actually be his ninth. Other people who many listeners may not have heard of who only wrote nine symphonies include Kurt Atterberg (whose sixth I listened to last week), Alfred Schnittke (who I have a difficult time appreciating as of yet), Egon Wellesz (whose music I cannot seem to get my hands on), Alexander Glazunov (who never actually finished his ninth). Wow, so if we accept a number of logical fallacies and ignore other evidence to the contrary, we could make something of this curse of the ninth. But let’s not.
There are a few problems with this idea, as much as I love little things like this. My original intention in writing this was not to tear down or disprove the idea, as I don’t think anyone really takes it seriously anyway; it’s more of a mnemonic device or just a fun little factoid, but it does aid in keeping organized some other aspects of musical history and information, and so I like it. It is, at best, a tenuous trend.
First of all, even if we assume that all of these composers DID write nine symphonies, there are inconsistencies among the symphonies. For example, Dvorak, Beethoven, Mahler, Vaughan Williams and Spohr all finished theirs (back to Spohr: he is only considered to have written nine symphonies if a symphony in Eb without an opus number is not counted, so he is kind of disqualified, too). Bruckner’s however, was left unfinished; while Mahler, for example finished his ninth and couldn’t get to finish a tenth, Bruckner couldn’t even finish his ninth. Schnittke barely finished his ninth. So is it about finishing the ninth and nothing after it, or not finishing the ninth at all? Problems.
Secondly, as stated before, oversimplification and errors in organization make the numbering inaccurate. In Mahler’s day, for example, the only real candidate for the curse of the ninth would have been Beethoven. What we now call Schubert’s ninth (or most of us, do, anyway; the ‘great’) in Mahler’s day would have been only his seventh, because what we now consider his seventh was completely abandoned, and his eighth went unfinished as well, so he jumped ahead to no. 9. Dvorak’s ninth would have only been considered his fifth, since four of his other symphonies were only posthumously. But back to Bruckner.
He died while completing his ninth, which also wasn’t even really his ninth. He may be the only composer to have a symphony no. 0 (in Dm, written between his first and second symphonies) and a symphony no. 00 (more often known as the Study Symphony in Fm, written before his symphony no. 1) attributed to him. This means he wrote 11 symphonies and a sketch for another (after the symphony no. 0 and before symphony no. 2), meaning his ninth wasn’t ACTUALLY his ninth either, but it’s interesting that he couldn’t complete the one he finally decided to call his ninth, so we have to look at the works considered to be canonical for it to work.
Also, Sibelius’ inclusion (while almost never cited because it) is problematic, because if you include Kullervo, you should also include Mahler’s Das Lied, thus making what he called his ninth his tenth and his unfinished tenth his unfinished eleventh. Gotta be consistent.
Finally, there are TONS of composers who blew past the nine-symphony threshold. I am unshamefully copying from Wikipedia the following:
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 and Darius Milhaud (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 (268). Composers before Beethoven, such as Joseph Haydn (106) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (59), are not considered relevant to this superstition.
So apparently it all started with Beethoven. Seriously… 268 symphonies? That’s amazing.
One last thought here: If Schoenberg is, in fact, correct about Mahler’s hesitance to acknowledge a ninth symphony, then would one be correct in assuming his final decision to proceed with his actual ninth a recognition of his fate? It is known that he was aware of an incurable heart condition, and also kind of had a rough last few years with his daughter dying and wife leaving him. Was it intentional? I don’t know, but I find it interesting to think about.
That being said, I refuse to listen to Mahler’s ninth at this point. Won’t do it. I am hoping to get around to it at the end of this year, because, as I’ve stated before, there is a very specific set of circumstances I have in mind under which I will experience that piece for the first time. Because of that, I’ll probably be disappointed or unimpressed, but there’s a plane ticket halfway around the world and quite some time off from work involved before I can listen to MTT conduct Mahler’s final symphony. I also have a video of someone (Haitink?) conducting it, which I can watch after a listen on a couch in front of a fireplace with big headphones (on me, not the fireplace). We shall see.