The Curse of the Ninth – Is It Real?


        Music has accompanied humanity since the beginning of time; classical music is just one of its many forms. Though often associated with privileged high-class royalty due to its historical backgrounds or fantasy-like scenarios due to its association with movie cultures, the world of classical music is not without its superstitions and conspiracies. Ranging from the mysteries behind many composers’ last works—such as Mozart’s Requiem “Lacrimosa” and Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony “Pathétique”—to other mysterious pieces such as Sibelius’ unfinished 8th Symphony and Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Here, I’ll be covering one of the most well-known superstitions in the world of classical music that revolves around a symphony and a number.

The curse of the ninth is a superstition that began around the late Romantic period in the history of classical music. It is a belief that the ninth is a composer’s limit—meaning a composer can only write a total of nine symphonies before they are destined to die, either during or after writing it, or before completing a tenth symphony—and it is a belief that was truly feared by composers back in the days.

Prior to the Curse of the Ninth, composers would write a great number of symphonies. Mozart wrote a total of 41 symphonies during his lifetime, and Haydn wrote 104. According to Arnold Schoenberg, the superstition began with Gustav Mahler when he composed Das Lied von der Erde. However, the curse might have actually originated from Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the most well-known figures in classical music besides Mozart, even those who aren’t familiar with classical music at all.

It is a well-known fact that Beethoven started losing his hearing during his late 20s, and by the time he wrote his 9th symphony, he was completely deaf. In fact, the premier of his 9th symphony was conducted by Beethoven himself, despite being unable to hear a single sound from the orchestra, and thus, a stand-in conductor was used, a.k.a the one the orchestra was actually following. Beethoven eventually died in 1827 in his apartment due to an unknown prolonged illness. Since then, the curse of the ninth began, in which many famous composers who came after Beethoven would die during or after their ninth symphony.

Some, such as Franz Schubert, another famous composer during the Romantic period, died in the middle of writing their tenth, while others, such as Brucker, died before they were even able to complete their ninth, leaving it unfinished. Other composers who also seemed to fall into this curse include Arnold, Dvořák, Attenberg, Glazunov, Vaughan Williams, Spohr, and the list goes on and on. The only composer who came after Beethoven, who seemed to have avoided this curse, was Dmitri Shostakovich, a Russian composer who lived during the era of World War I and World War II and got away with writing a total of 15 symphonies.

Some composers have tried to avoid this curse. A popular example is Gustav Mahler, who started the curse of the ninth superstition himself and was obsessed with the curse. After finishing his 8th symphony, Mahler wrote Das Lied von der Erde (Song to the Earth), which structurally, was actually a symphony that he refused to call one and decided to call it a song cycle instead in hopes of avoiding the curse. He eventually started his tenth, only to die from pneumonia in the middle of writing it. In the end, it all came down to a quote left by 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."

The superstition started losing its popularity during the Modern period, a.k.a the 20th century, and while it is still spoken about, there has not been any proof of the curse taking place in the modern era as it did in the Romantic period during the era of Beethoven. Philip Glass, a 20th-century composer who is still alive to this day and got away with writing his ninth symphony, stated, “Everyone is afraid to do a ninth. It is a jinx that people think about.” At the end of the day, as written by Maddy Shaw Roberts in a Classic FM article, “The Curse of the Nine is a great story, and it probably fuelled a lot of the angst behind Mahler’s heart-wrenching symphonies. But perhaps it’s best to treat it as a superstition.”

Writer: Manohara Diwasasri Editor: Marsha Almira