Search This Blog

Sunday 13 October 2013

The Curse of the Ninth

Classical music has its own version of the 27 Club in the Curse of the Ninth. The idea is that, from Beethoven onwards, no composer has been able to get beyond Symphony No. 9. It’s true that “tenth” symphonies are very scarce in the regular classical repertory. For several of the big name composers, the ninth meant “the last”: Beethoven himself, his younger contemporary Schubert, the two great Austrian symphonists Bruckner and Mahler, as well as Dvořák (whose ninth is his famous New World symphony) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (who was mentioned a few weeks ago in Reinventing Ezekiel's Wheel).

Other big names of the 19th century never even made it to No. 9. Mendelssohn wrote five symphonies, while Schumann and Brahms only managed four each. Tchaikovsky produced seven, although his last symphony is called the sixth because one of the earlier ones, based on Byron’s gothic poem Manfred, wasn’t given a number. High-numbered symphonies were commoner in the 18th century – for example Mozart wrote 41, and Haydn no fewer that 104. But these were relatively short works that took much less time to write than the sprawling romantic symphonies of the 19th century. It was only in the 20th century, with composers like Shostakovich (who wrote 15 symphonies), that the Curse of the Ninth was finally broken.

At least some of the supposed victims of the curse would have been blissfully unaware of the fact. Schubert churned out symphony after symphony without bothering to give them numbers (or even, in many cases, bothering to have them published or performed) – it was only in retrospect that it emerged he had written nine of them. Similarly Dvořák’s last symphony is his ninth only in modern numbering systems, which include four early symphonies that weren’t published in the composer’s lifetime.

Bruckner gave his symphonies the numbers by which they are known today, and the last (which he died before completing) is indeed labelled No. 9. Despite this, it was actually his tenth symphony, because Bruckner started counting at zero instead of one (or at any rate, he labelled an early unpublished symphony with a “Ø” symbol).

The one composer who really does seem to have been superstitious about the Curse of the Ninth was Gustav Mahler (the picture shows Rodin’s famous bust of Mahler, which I saw at the Musée Rodin in Paris last month). The fact was recorded by his wife, Alma Mahler, and also mentioned by the composer Arnold Schoenberg in a speech after Mahler’s death (“It seems the Ninth is a limit... as if in the Tenth something could be said that we are not yet ready to know. Whoever has written a Ninth stands too close to the afterlife.”)

Mahler had good reason to fear the Curse of the Ninth, because around the time he finished his 8th symphony he was diagnosed with a potentially fatal heart condition. Mahler’s 8th was a symphony only because that’s what he chose to call it – actually it’s like nothing else before or since. The first movement is a choral setting of the mediaeval hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (“Come, Creator Spirit”). The huge second movement, lasting the best part of an hour, is a virtual mini-opera – a setting of the final scenes of Goethe’s Faust. If, like me, you’re really only familiar with the Faust legend from Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus, you might expect this final scene to involve Faust being dragged down to Hell. But Goethe’s version is completely different – Faust is rescued by angels and taken up to Heaven, while the other characters indulge in mystical speculations about the Eternal Feminine and the illusory nature of reality. It’s all very New Age, and that’s what Mahler depicts in the finale of his 8th Symphony.

Mahler’s next work was equally novel, again with a hint of the New Age about it – a setting for voices and orchestra of Taoist style Chinese poetry. The result is at least as deserving of the name “symphony” as the 8th was, but Mahler didn’t call it that – apparently as a direct result of the Curse of the Ninth. Instead, he called it Das Lied von der Erde – “The Song of the Earth”. According to Alma, her husband wanted to cheat the curse by passing his ninth symphony off as something else, so he could leapfrog over the danger zone and get straight to his tenth symphony... which would be called his ninth.

But the curse wasn’t fooled so easily – Mahler’s ninth symphony was his last. He did start work on another one, but it was left unfinished at his death. Alma refused to allow any attempted reconstructions of “Mahler’s Tenth” to be performed until the 1960s – by which time symphonies were a thing of the past. The victims of the next curse, the 27 club, had already stepped onto the stage: Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison...

No comments: