Is There a “Curse of the Ninth?”

When Carl St.Clair conducts Mahler’s Ninth Symphony next month (Jan. 12, 13, and 14), you might want to reflect on how the composer had to wrestle with the “curse of the Ninth” in order to complete this great work.

The idea of the “curse of the ninth” is pretty uncomplicated—simply the notion that composers are destined to die before completing a ninth symphony. Arnold Schoenberg, the great modernist and father of the Second Viennese School, asserted that the idea of a ninth-symphony jinx originated with Mahler, whose thoughts never seemed to be far from the meaning of human life, mortality, and the possibility of an afterlife. “It seems that the Ninth is a limit,” Schoenberg wrote in an essay on Mahler’s art and ideas. “He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth [that] we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.”

From the midpoint of the 20th century onward, after two world wars and in an age of jet travel and the atomic energy, this phrase was still familiar but was dismissed as quaint superstition. To Gustav Mahler, who was born only a decade after the midpoint of the 19th century and 33 years after Beethoven’s death, it was something more complex. It represented the dreaded possibility of nine symphonies marking the limit of human artistic inquiry, and a signpost toward inevitable death. Though Mahler was probingly intellectual, this idea—half logic, half superstition—dogged him. While all of the symphonists who followed Beethoven composed in his shadow, it was Mahler who most determinedly carried forward the burden of the monumentality of Beethoven’s symphonies. But while Beethoven’s revelatory Ninth seemed like an ultimate meditation on human freedom and brotherhood, it was not the end of his profound metaphysical speculations; they continued for years as he composed the great string quartets and piano sonatas of his late period. For Mahler, the symphony was the form for the exploration and utterance of great ideas. He died after writing his Ninth, which he never heard performed. He had begun writing a Tenth Symphony, which was unfinished when he died of endocarditis in May of 2011.

If you attend Carl St.Clair’s concerts in early January, you can leave your day-to-day concerns behind as you listen to a Mahler Ninth: once the music begins, you are in the realm of the eternal. Read more or purchase tickets here.

Is There a “Curse of the Ninth?”

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