Colin Schrein, A&E Editor
Superstition is a thing of mystery and intrigue for many, something that drives people mad and riddles them with eerie questions. Musicians are among some of the most superstitious, from the naming of the tritone as the “devil’s interval” in the Middle Ages to the “27 Club” of famous musicians who have all passed at that same age. Perhaps one of the largest superstitions among the classical community is the “curse of the ninth symphony.” Since the 19th century, there have been numerous composers that have died after writing their ninth symphony. Some subsequent composers have even taken the superstition so far as to rebrand their ninth symphonies as other works in order to bypass the curse.
The first notable composer to reach the grave after their ninth symphony was none other than Ludwig van Beethoven. The Romantic-era powerhouse was the posterboy of the tortured artist, becoming increasingly deaf and socially withdrawn as his years ticked by. In his later period, Beethoven was known for his ambivalence towards musical norms and his ongoing health issues and custody battles over his nephew. This culminated in his mammoth Ninth Symphony, a work that cast a compositional shadow over all other music of the time. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony would be his last, as he died of lead poisoning while sketching ideas for his Tenth Symphony.
Following Beethoven’s untimely post-ninth death was his younger contemporary Franz Schubert. Schubert championed the lieder, or poetry set to music, as well as delving into larger scale compositions. Like Beethoven, he suffered a severe deterioration of health in his later years, eventually leading to an early death of syphilis. He completed nine symphonies in total, with his last deemed “The Great C Major” in ode to its majesty. On his deathbed, Schubert requested one last bit of music to hear–Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor. Was the curse passed down from Beethoven or was Schubert just an unlikely victim of illness?
The composer to cement the “curse of the ninth” into the minds of the public was Gustav Mahler. Aware of the fates of both Beethoven and Schubert after their ninth symphonies, Mahler tried to skirt around the curse by disguising his symphonically-structured “Das Lied von der Erde” as a song cycle rather than a symphony. After completing his official Ninth Symphony in 1909, he thought he had escaped the curse but, in 1911, he passed away from endocarditis. He had begun working on his Tenth Symphony and never even got to hear his Ninth be played.
After Beethoven, Schubert and Mahler, there have been subsequent composers to not make it beyond their ninth symphony, but these remain the main three associated with the superstition. The “curse of the ninth” doesn’t rattle composers’ bones as it used to, although it makes for a curious and intriguing tale. Whether it be a crazy matter of circumstance, or a mystical hex, the ninth symphony will always mark a milestone for composers…or a headstone.