Why Did Composers Write Only Nine Symphonies? Curse or Superstition?

March 8, 2019 | Isaac Han

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There is an interesting notion flying about in the wonderful world of classical music. It is so interesting, many scholars, musicologists, even soothsayers, all put in their foot in to this pond of muddy claim: Why did composers write only nine symphonies? Was it intentional? Was it someone’s idea of a joke?

Rumor has it that anyone who wrote a ninth symphony would be cursed to die soon, if not immediately. And, of course, some others brush this claim aside, claiming anecdotal coincidences. There are, however, some historical facts to support this argument.

Ludwig van Beethoven. Image in the public domain.


Antonín Dvořák
Antonín Dvořák. Image in the public domain.


Gustav-Mahler-Kohut copy
Gustav Mahler. Image in the public domain.

Most famous one is, of course, Ludwig van Beethoven, who wrote nine symphonies. The progenitor of Romantic Music was a leader of many things that influenced generations of composers after him. The "curse" of nine symphonies started with him, too. His ninth symphony, the "Choral Symphony," incorporates a large choir, not to mention a "very large" orchestra – for his time, anyway – that made the audience frightfully inspired. The catchy tune helped, too, and is easily recognizable even to those consider themselves unfamiliar with classical music.

Antonin Dvorak "tried" to hide the true number of his symphonies by naming his "New World" symphony as his fifth when, in fact, it was his ninth. But he died not too long after finishing it. Four years later, the scholars found out that there were four more symphonies that Dvorak wrote previously. Whether or not Dvorak intentionally tried to hide the fact that he wrote nine symphonies, he seemed to have died, apparently, of it. What a co-incidence, or is it?

Gustav Mahler, who was considered to be one of the last true "Romanticists," was particularly sensitive to or paranoid about the issue, and all of his colleagues knew it, too. He tried to avoid the curse by calling his ninth symphony, "Das Lied von der Erde – Song of the Earth." After finishing the "Das Lied," he almost immediately settled into writing his tenth symphony. But fate would not leave him alone, and died not long after starting the piece.

There were, however, composers who wrote more than 9 symphonies – many more, in fact – and lived to tell about it. W. A. Mozart wrote more than 48 – there are big disputes about Mozart’s symphonies after this number – and Franz Joseph Haydn wrote 101! Interestingly, though, most of them came before Beethoven. Does this mean that Beethoven began this apparently great and frightful tradition? Are the composers, with their great minds and all, so susceptible to the superstition, and became willing victims?

You can read all about it in… where else?

In our books, of course! Check out the books below.

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Haydns sunrise

Is it a curse or just superstition? What do you think?