“I don’t believe in the curse of the ninth symphony”

The CCSO will perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, which some commentators believe predicted the composer’s death, writes Alex Spencer.

Conductor of the CCSO Robert Hodge

Conductor Robert Hodge promises audiences a rollercoaster of emotions as he listens to the City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and warns he will be ‘wrung out’ at the end.

The symphony was the last Mahler completed and many believe he was struck by the curse of ninths – which holds that composers die after their ninth symphony. It happened to Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner, who helped build the myth.

Mahler wrote his Symphony No. 9 between 1908 and 1909 but he did not survive to see it performed. He composed it after a series of personal tragedies, and it was filled with sadness, but some people believe he knew it would be his last and that’s why the music is so melancholy.

Robert, who will lead the work for the CCSO this month, doesn’t accept the stories that have piled up around him.

He says: “The ninth symphony is extraordinary. There’s a lot of myth surrounding it that Mahler knew he was dying, and that the symphony itself is kind of a farewell, and because so many composers died after writing their ninths symphonies. Commentators picked up on this and said it truly describes his death. But this has been discredited, not least because he had started writing his tenth symphony when he died and made no reference to the work as his farewell.

“However, it’s deeply moving in a way that some of his other work isn’t. There’s so much emotion in there, so many life experiences are explored. And the ninth definitely seems to be the one in which sadness pervades more than anything, but there are also huge amounts of beauty in. Much of the beauty comes from being kicked out of the countryside, but there is also real chaos at times.

“The interesting thing about the Ninth Symphony is that when it was composed, the music world was really split between those who favored romanticism and music that sounded ‘nice’, and the more atonal and exploratory use music, which sounds mostly discordant. This kind of symphony overlaps the two in a really interesting way.

“He explores the use of strange harmonies while remaining rooted in romanticism. It’s the most amazing hour and a half of listening and it’s impossible not to be drawn into a real sense of deep emotion when you listen to it.

In the years before Mahler composed his ninth symphony, his daughter died and he discovered that his beloved wife was having an affair. At the same time, he was diagnosed with a serious heart condition, which seems to have fueled the emotion of the work.

Robert says, “The end is so slow, it’s so quiet. He kind of dies to nothing and there’s a silence in the room after going through an hour and a half of emotions of all kinds. You squeeze your own chest because it’s so beautiful. I can’t imagine anyone not being moved by this.

Conductor of the CCSO Robert Hodge
Conductor of the CCSO Robert Hodge

However, when Robert gave conducting lessons at the Royal College of Music in London, he told his students not to explain the works too much to their orchestras.

He said: “I always tell my students not to talk too much – it really annoys orchestras. They just want to play and they want you to be able to direct them physically very well. So sometimes you can talk too much and get involved, get involved in visions of mist rising over a cold lake on a winter morning and all that kind of stuff and all they really want to know is if the note is short or long.

“Sometimes a more practical view of things is better, but sometimes you can explain the vibe with a simple word, like something like fragile or grief. This can be difficult because there are often so many emotional shifts throughout the performance.

A survey of conductors by BBC Music Magazine voted Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 the fourth greatest symphony of all time. And Mahler’s friend, the composer Alban Berg, wrote: “I played Mahler’s ninth again. The first movement is the most glorious he ever wrote. It expresses an extraordinary love of the Earth, of nature. The desire to live in peace, to enjoy it fully, deep within, before death comes, as it does irresistibly.

The fact that the symphony is not heard more often has a lot to do with the challenges it presents to both conductor and orchestra. It’s a long piece, so a complete concert in itself, and it’s both a treat for Mahler enthusiasts and a chance for those unfamiliar with the work to find out why it has such a reputation.

  • The City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra will perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 on Saturday November 26 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets priced at £20, £10 (students) and £6 (under 14s) are available from adticketing.com or 01223 300085.

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