In honor of Friday the 13th, we’re taking a look at one of classical music’s most entrenched—and certainly most macabre—legends: the curse of the ninth. In classical music lore, the curse of the ninth refers to the idea that a composer would die after completing his ninth symphony.
This is, of course, absolutely not true. Many, many composers have written more than nine symphonies, including some of the most celebrated symphonists in music history like Haydn (who composed over 100) and Mozart (over 40).
Lists of composers who succumbed to the dreaded curse often cite a handful of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century composers: Beethoven, Bruckner (although he died with his ninth symphony technically unfinished and withdrew two other symphonies from his oeuvre…); Schubert (although his eligibility for inclusion depends on how many of his unfinished symphonies you count…); Dvorak (who did compose nine symphonies, although four weren’t discovered until after his death…); and Mahler (who wrote a tenth large-scale instrumental work but didn’t label it as a symphony, some say specifically to avoid the curse, only to die a few years later while composing his actual tenth symphony…). This list alone should give you an indication of the mental gymnastics people have gone to in their quest to prove the theory!
With very few clear-cut examples of composers who fit neatly into the curse’s model, Beethoven’s monumental Symphony No. 9, already an incredibly important and paradigm-shifting work in its own right, earns an added layer of significance…
Many other references to the curse of the ninth also draw strongly on the words of composer and passionate numerologist Arnold Schoenberg, writing in the early twentieth century:
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. —Arnold Schoenberg (composer of a pair of chamber symphonies)
The curse has become widely-known both in and beyond classical music circles. In 2017, it even stepped into the pop culture spotlight as a plot device in an episode of British detective drama Midsomer Murders!
Nevertheless, twentieth-century composers don’t seem to be too worried about the curse and many have written over nine symphonies including Philip Glass, Hans Werner Henze, Darius Milhaud, Dmitri Shostakovich, and more…