The Musical Curse That Takes The Lives Of The Most Famous Composers

March 11, 2018

|Ariel Rodriguez

Break a mirror and get seven years of bad luck. Compose the ninth symphony and you’ll die.

We all have a silly superstition because there is nothing wrong with taking a little of precaution, just in case it happens to be true. I consider myself a man of science, however, every time I spill salt on a table, I throw some over my shoulder. I knock on wood whenever I hear the word “cancer” (knocks on wood). I cross my fingers whenever I need luck to be on my side.

Believe it or not there is this deadly superstition among classical music composers that restricts them from ever composing a tenth symphony. The legend goes back to the 19th century and truth is, all early classical music composers couldn’t complete a tenth symphony because they all died after working on the ninth. Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Antonín Dvorák, Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Kurt Atterberg, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Roger Sessions, Egon Wellesz, Alexander Glazunov, and Malcolm Arnold, all died after or while composing their "Symphony No. 9."

Beethoven was first to suffer the consequences of this “curse.” Three years after he finished his "Symphony No. 9," he passed away during a thunderstorm night at the age of 56. His autopsy revealed liver damage and he left behind a draft of his incomplete "Symphony No. 10." Eighty and some years later, Schubert, Dvorák, and Bruckner died while having completed a ninth symphony. Mahler actually got to finished a completed draft for his tenth symphony before he died of a streptococcal infection in the blood, he was 50. Although Mahler finished a composed symphony, it is still considered incomplete since he didn’t get to orchestrate it, meaning it's not possible to play it. During this time, Mahler suffered from love disappointment after finding out his wife had been cheating on him. My personal belief? He was so heartbroken that he knew the ninth symphony curse would take his life away.

Arnold Schoenberg, Austrian composer, was friends with Mahler. After seeing what had happened to his friend, he developed the hypothesis of the curse behind the ninth symphony.

“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.”

Despite warning all other composers out there, many didn’t listen to Schoenberg’s advice and six more composers lost their lives to the deadly symphony. Coincidence? I don't think so. But there have been cases of composers who didn’t die right after composing a ninth one. For example, Peter Marxwell Davies, who found out he had leukemia while attempting to finish a tenth symphony in 2013. He passed away until 2016 at the age of 81. Also, there’s Phillip Glass who has gotten all the way to "Symphony No. 11" (2017) and the 81-year-old composer is still alive today. Maybe he broke the curse by actually finishing a tenth symphony right after the ninth, or maybe fate still has a plan for him. Whatever the reasons and consequences are, the threat of the 9th symphony curse lives within the head of classical musical composers and it begs the question, are their lives really worth composing a ninth symphony? Because Beethoven's "Symphony No. 5" is his most famous.

Ariel Rodriguez

Ariel Rodriguez

Creative Writer