Most people know about the curse of the ninth, but if you don’t, here’s a quick explanation.
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Choral (8.550181) laid down a few benchmarks. Its influence was felt most recently, perhaps, during the dawn of the age of the compact disc. Consideration had to be given to how many minutes of music a standard CD should be able to accommodate. It was decided that the capacity must be long enough to take a complete performance of Beethoven’s last symphony, without spilling over to a second disc.
Back to the nineteenth century: Beethoven was already casting a long shadow over European music, with many composers overawed by his legacy and feeling unable to out-do the master. It became supposed that writing nine symphonies would be followed soon by death, so that Beethoven’s tally would remain unsurpassed. Much has been made of how composers such as Schubert, Dvořák and Vaughan Williams all died before they could notch up double digits in their list of symphonies. Mahler tried to cheat death by disguising his ninth symphony as an orchestral song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde. After completing his so-titled Ninth Symphony, he thought he had successfully confused fate with shady numbering. Alas, he died before completing his Tenth Symphony, seemingly just one more statistic in the fable of the curse of the ninth.
There have been plenty of composers, however, who did write a tenth symphony; and occasionally they had several more lined up in the wings. Some of their names, although unfamiliar, might prove fodder for the adventurous listener.
Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882–1973) was an Italian composer who was superstitious about numbering his symphonies (although, for some reason, he was more concerned about the number seven). Not all of them carry the title symphony, but eleven of them do. His Tenth Symphony (8.223697) dates from the final years of his very long life and, interestingly, it was conceived with death very much in mind. The work had its origins in a personal tragedy that had profoundly shaken Malipiero. The work’s subtitle, Atropo, refers to one of the Fates in classical mythology—the one whose task it was to cut the thread of life at the moment of death. Malipiero elaborated as follows: ‘The Tenth Symphony is dedicated to the memory of Hermann Scherchen, the conductor who was a great friend of mine. I was deeply moved by the fact that with [my operatic triptych] L’Orfeide [which Scherchen conducted] at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino of 1966, he concluded his life [collapsing immediately after the performance]. I wanted my Tenth Symphony to end with the last bars of L’Orfeide, that is to say with the last music he conducted in his life.” Here it is.
Alexander Moyzes was a Czech composer who lived from 1906 to 1984; his later compositions were therefore written following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. His Tenth Symphony (8.225092), however, is devoid of political connotations and attains an extraordinary serenity, looking back to the era of Brahms and Tchaikovsky rather than staring political realities in the face. First performed in 1979, the slow movement’s opening horn solo may have you thinking of a similarly beautiful passage in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.
Shostakovich’s monumental Tenth Symphony (8.572461) could not be more different. Reflecting on the composer’s life-long tussle with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who died a few months before the symphony’s premiere, the finale’s closing bars assert the composer’s triumph over tyranny (Shostakovich’s name is cryptically embedded in the D-E flat-C-B natural motif).
Still in Russia, our final composer for today from the list of those who escaped the curse of the ninth is Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881–1950); in fact, by producing 27 symphonies, he completely outran it. He finished his Tenth Symphony (8.223113) in 1927. The work foreshadows Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony by being based on aspects of the city of Leningrad, specifically Alexander Benois’ illustration for Pushkin’s narrative poem, The Bronze Horseman. It centres on the equestrian statue of Peter the Great in St Petersburg, formerly Leningrad. The impoverished Evgeny loses Parasha, his beloved, in a storm; having cursed the statue for the tragedy, the monument comes to life and gives deathly chase to Evgeny.
The themes for the three central characters are constructed on ten semi-tones of the chromatic scale. The work bristles with tension and psychological turmoil. Although it ends badly for Evgeny with the terrifying denouement of the curse, Myaskovsky fortunately managed to stave off the curse of the ninth with breath to spare.