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Ninth Symphonies

Why did so many of music’s great symphonists die after completing their ninth symphony? We’ll sample five landmark compositions: the ninth symphonies of Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Dvorák and Mahler.

 
 
Program 1

This week's theme is the curse of the ninth symphony which began with Beethoven in the mid-1820s. Over time, the myth grew that when writing your ninth symphony, it would be your last and perhaps also your last year on earth. 

Beethoven's ninth symphony is a massive work and takes over an hour to perform. The famous choral melody in the final movement actually comes from a folk tune that Beethoven had written in the 1790s.

 

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, Op. 125 in d minor, IV + excerpts
CSO/Solti
Lon 417 800
:54, :44, :52, 1:30, 24:33
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Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, Op. 125 in d minor, II + excerpts
Berlin Phil/Karajan
DG 421 987
15:53, :18,
1:08
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Beethoven: Fantasia in C minor, Op. 80, Choral Fantasy (excerpts)
New York Phil/Bernstein; Serkin, p.
Sony 47522
1:26, 1:01
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Program 2

The numbering of Schubert's symphonies is somewhat problematic. Numbers one through six, written when he was young, are in straightforward numerical order, but after that, he wrote a few sketches in D Major, and then two number seven symphonies. The second, in b minor, is known as Schubert's "unfinished symphony" because there are only two movements.

After that, he wrote another sketch, and then "the great D major symphony" that musicologist Otto Erich Deutsch officially titled as the Schubert's ninth symphony.

Incidentally, Schubert was present at the first performance of Beethhoven's 9th, and its likely to have made a big impact on him. Several musical excerpts bear striking similarity to Beethoven's ninth.

Schubert: Symphony No. 9, D. 944, I, II, IV
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Abbado
DG 423656
16:34, :12, 15:21, 15:25
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Schubert: Symphony No. 9, D. 944 (excerpts)
Berlin Phil/Furtwängler
DG 427 781
:16, 1:20, 1:04
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Program 3

Antonin Dvorak composed his ninth symphony, From the New World, in 1839 while living in New York City. Contrary to Beethoven and Schubert, Dvorak lived for another ten years after writing it.

Though he is known as "the great Bohemian composer," Dvorak had moved to New York City after being offered a position there. Jeanette Meyers Thurber, founder of the National Conservatory of Music, offered him the job as artistic director and professor of composition. The lucrative salary eventually enticed him.

Dvorák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95/B 178, From the New World, I, III
Berlin Phil/Kubelik
DG 423 120
9:23, 8:04, :09
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Dvorák: Symphony No. 9, II
Dvorák Festival Orchestra of New York/Richman
Music & Arts 1078
12:14
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Dvorák: Sonatina for Violin and Piano in G major, Op. 100/B 183
Suk, p.; Mayorga, p.
Music & Arts 1078
4:04
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Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (excerpt)
CSO/Solti
Lon 417 800
:05
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Dvorák: Symphony No. 9, IV
Czech Phil/Talich
EMI 75483-2
11:15
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Trad., arr. Burleigh: “Deep River”
Dvorák Festival Orchestra of New York/Richman
Music & Arts 1078
2:31
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Program 4

Anton Bruckner, a profoundly religious man, did seem to have fears about writing his ninth symphony. Though Brucker wrote more than nine in total, he died while writing the symphony he titled as the ninth. Only three movements were ever written, though Bruckner had planned to add a fourth. It is not commonly performed.

Bruckner worked on the piece for seven years, and though he owes a lot to Beethoven's ninth as a model, harmonically, it is closer to Tristan and Isolde.

Towards the end of the program, Bill plays a movement of Mahler's ninth symphony, the subject of the following program.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 in d minor, WAB 109, I (excerpt), II
Royal Concertgebouw Orch/Haitink
Phi 442 049
1:17, 11:13
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Bruckner: Symphony No. 9, III
CSO/Solti
Lon 417 295
26:52
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Mahler: Symphony No. 9 in D Major, III
Vienna Phil/Abbado
DG 423 564
12:25
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Program 5

Gustav Mahler also took the curse of the ninth symphony very seriously. In 1907, his eldest daughter died and he was diagnosed with a heart condition. His doctor told him that he could die at any moment.

Mahler wrote "At one blow, I have simply lost all of the clarity and quietude I ever achieved. Now I'm at the end of my life, again a beginner."

It was after this that he began work on his ninth symphony. The piece was first performed in 1912, a year after Mahler died.

 

 

Mahler: Symphony No. 9 in D Major, I
Vienna Phil/Abbado
DG 423564
27:17
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Mahler: Symphony No. 9 in D Major, IV
Vienna Phil/Walter
EMI 62965
18:10
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Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, Op. 125 in d minor (excerpt)
Berlin Phil/Karajan
DG 421 987
2:32
Purchase

 

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