Earlier in February, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Riccardo Muti began a months-long Schubertiade. Before it's all over, Orchestra Hall will be festooned with Franz Schubert’s complete symphonic output, with lieder, solo piano music, and chamber music confettied on top.
Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 appeared in recent weeks. No. 9, the “Great C Major,” follows on March 20 to 22, Nos. 8 (the “Unfinished”) and 2 from March 27 to 29, Nos. 1 and 6 from June 12 to 17, and No. 5 to close the season June 19 to 21. (No. 7, even more unfinished than the Unfinished, was only sketched by Schubert.)
Schubert died in 1828, at age 31, before he reached double-digit symphonies, setting the direction for the Curse of the Ninth, the superstition sparked after Ludwig van Beethoven’s death the year before, entombing his monumental “Choral” Symphony, with the famous “Ode to Joy” theme, as his last.
Since then, composers—by nature a numerically inclined lot—have continued to succumb to the curse, even in spite of efforts to dodge it.
- Antonín Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony, his No. 9, preceded his death by more than ten years, but was nonetheless his last.
- Anton Bruckner, pathological reviser, never put the finishing touches on his No. 9, the orchestration of the final movement only partially complete. Most performances play only the three finished movements.
- Gustav Mahler worried about the curse, according to his wife, Alma. Trying to outwit it, he titled the big orchestral work that followed his Symphony No. 8 Das Lied von der Erde, without a symphony number. He then wrote a boldly titled Symphony No. 9 and died before finishing No. 10.
Killjoys like to point out the flaws in the curse. If Schubert didn’t quite finish No. 8 and didn’t come close to finishing No. 7, didn’t he really only write seven? Why should Dvořák’s No. 9 count as number nine, when during his lifetime only five were published? Bruckner’s still-performed D Minor Symphony is called No. 0 for convenience—doesn’t that make ten? And didn’t Mahler obviously write ten? And aren’t curses kind of stupid?
Look, we all know curses don’t really exist, so diddling around with numbering to turn composers into counterexemplar black swans doesn’t achieve anything. What’s more interesting is the vision of Death that survives the disproofs: a Grim Reaper who cares more about the way symphonies are numbered than how many there really are. Death as a bureaucrat from Kafka, ready to stamp a death certificate as soon as someone puts a 9 on it.