Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Curse of the Ninth Symphony

Episode Number: 005
Title: The Curse of the Ninth Symphony
Introduction Music: Chaconne for Violin - J.S. Bach
End Music: Symphony Nine, Adagio - Allegro Molto; Antonin Dvorak, recorded by the Columbia University Orchestra*
Narrated by Nicolas Caporale and recorded on August 22nd, 2007

The "Curse of the Ninth Symphony" is a superstition among composers that implies that after their ninth symphony is written, they will die. This of course is only a myth, but some composers did actually take it seriously. The curse dates all the way back to Beethoven, but the composers who lived before him do not apply because they wrote many more than nine symphonies. For example, Giovanni Battista Sammartini wrote 68 symphonies, Mozart wrote around 68 (though it was commonly accepted that he only wrote 41), and Franz Joseph Haydn wrote 104 in his lifetime. Let’s save the debate about how many symphonies Mozart actually wrote for another episode, especially because he clearly evaded the curse. The composers that do fall under the category of victims are, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Anton Bruckner, Anton Dvorak, Aleksander Glasunov, Gustav Mahler, Louis Spohr and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Let's throw in Dmitri Shostakovich too just for fun, but there is a large exception to be made when we include him. I personally do not believe in this curse, but it is fun to talk about nonetheless. For the sake of discussion, I will portray my point of view as if the curse is real. Maybe I will try and write nine symphonies and I'll see what happens to me. In the words of composer Arnold Schoenberg, "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."

Beethoven lived from 1770-1827. As you could assume, or if you listened to the last three episodes you would know that he only wrote nine symphonies. He did in fact begin writing a tenth before he died. It is now believed that he died as a result of lead poisoning. Beethoven's innovations to the symphony set a benchmark for future composers, not only in quality, but for those who believed in the curse, quantity. Brahms luckily avoided the curse because he was always being compared to Beethoven, and because of this it took him over twenty years just to finish his first symphony! Brahms would only write four symphonies in his life.

Anton Bruckner was an Austrian composer who lived from 1824-1896. He died while writing the ninth symphony, though he was able to complete three movements. It was first performed in 1903. However, though he died writing what he considered to be the ninth symphony, he had in fact written two other symphonies that he didn't bother numbering. They were later discovered and given the names Symphony 0 and Symphony 00. Symphony 0 actually was his third symphony written but he didn't consider it to be important. Maybe composers who wish to write more than nine symphonies should just not number some of them. (Bruckner didn't do that because of the curse though).

Gustav Mahler lived between 1860 and 1911 and was a student of Anton Bruckner. As far as Mahler knew, only Spohr, Beethoven and Bruckner had died after writing or while working on their ninth symphonies. Mahler was obsessed with the curse, and compared all of his symphonies to Beethoven's ninth, claiming that they all had the same impact that Beethoven's ninth did. Mahler was terrified of writing a symphony numbered "nine". He went as far as writing a symphony/song cycle and calling it "A symphony for one tenor and one alto (or baritone) voice and orchestra" rather than giving it a number like the rest of them. However, he couldn't cheat the curse and died after finishing his ninth symphony and after starting the tenth. On an interesting side note, before he died Mahler raised his finger and moved it back and forth as if it were a baton. His last word was "Mozart".

Antonin Dvorak lived from 1841 to 1904 was a Bohemian composer who wrote his ninth symphony in New York, in 1893. This symphony was subtitled the "New World" symphony. He died eleven years later without writing another symphony. Maybe if he began writing a tenth he would have died sooner. At the end of this episode I will play an excerpt from this symphony for you, so stay tuned. Aleksander Glazunov lived from 1865 to 1936, but he lived another 26 years after publishing his ninth. Ralph Vaughan Williams, a British composer who lived between 1872 and 1958, and wrote his ninth between 1956 and 1957, a year or two before he died.

I would like to mention Dmitri Shostakovich, a Russian composer, who was noted for his symphonies. He lived between 1906 and 1975 and actually wrote fourteen symphonies. Why am I including him then? Well, he did write a total of fourteen symphonies but his ninth symphony fell victim to the curse rather than the composer himself. When he began writing his ninth symphony, it was expected to be a triumphant piece celebrating Stalin's victory over Nazi Germany. Stalin and Shostakovich did not get along well, and I don't know why Shostakovich wasn't killed. I think even he probably was surprised because there were some nights that he slept on his porch in case the police came to arrest him in the middle of the night, his family wouldn't have to witness it. For whatever reason, Shostakovich didn't write a triumphant piece but a light and whimsical one, which I personally believe he did just to irritate Stalin. It was premiered on November 3rd, 1945 and within a year it was censored. It usually took the Soviets a little while to catch on, but at this point Shostakovich probably expected it. The work was eventually banned in 1948, essentially "killing it".

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*The Columbia Universtiy Orchestra is not affiliated with the Music History Podcast in any way other than providing good-quality music on their website