If Friday the 13th isn’t an excuse to write a blog post about musical superstitions, unlucky composers, and general musical bad luck, then I don’t know what is! Here goes…
We might as well start with the number 13 itself. During my music A level (rather a lot of years ago now!) one of the topics we covered was Schoenberg’s twelve tone method. For some reason, one of the things that has always stuck in my mind from that time was one particular lesson which turned into a discussion of the significance of numbers to Schoenberg, and how superstitious he was, particularly when it came to the number thirteen. Schoenberg’s triskaidekaphobia (or, fear of the number 13) led him to dread any age that was a multiple of 13, and avoid numbering a bar as 13 in his compositions, preferring to number them 12, 12A, and 14. He supposedly even altered the spelling of his opera Moses und Aron so that it would contain twelve letters rather than thirteen (Aron could originally have been Aaron). I can hear my A level teacher now, thoroughly enjoying making Schoenberg’s story sound as spooky as possible, and the pause for dramatic effect before she revealed that, scoff though we might at the superstition, Schoenberg had indeed died on a Friday 13th, and at the age of 76 (7+6=13).
Thinking about unlucky numbers, 13 is not the only one that composers have to contend with. Another rather scary number is 9. The fact that Beethoven, Schubert, and Dvořák, all died after writing their ninth symphonies led to a superstition among some late romantic composers that if you write a ninth symphony, you are unlikely to live to complete a tenth. The ‘curse of the ninth’ was something that worried Mahler enough that he called what could have been his ninth symphony ‘Das Lied von der Erde’. He later wrote another symphony which was numbered as the ninth, and died before completing his tenth. Schoenberg also played his part in making this ‘curse’ into a widespread superstition, writing after Mahler’s death that “it seems that the Ninth is a limit […] He who wants to go beyond it must pass away.”
A macabre conversation at MusiCB3 about musical deaths and unlucky composers brought poor old Lully to mind. As the oft-told story goes, Lully injured his toe with his conducting staff during a performance of his Te Deum in January 1687, and the toe turned gangrenous. Refusing to have the toe amputated, Lully died of blood poisoning a couple of months later. Another composer who died a particularly musical death was Vierne, who collapsed whilst playing an organ recital at Notre-Dame. His foot hit a low E on the pedalboard as he fell, sounding out one last note around the cathedral as he died.
With musical bad luck praying on my mind, I asked around at MusiCB3 for some home-made musical disaster stories, and was not disappointed. From escaping sheet music leading to sniggering audience members, to organ stops coming off at inopportune moments, to a snoring audience member causing general alarm and confusion at one particularly dull opera, everyone who has been involved with live performance will have a story to tell. My own best musical fail was, I still maintain, all the fault of a flimsy music stand. I was playing an unfamiliar keyboard for a production of HMS Pinafore, and all had gone well until we got to about halfway through the finale. At this point, my score slipped off the stand slightly, hitting, of all things, the ‘DJ’ button as it went! In my panic to make the DJ sounds stop I ended up turning off the whole keyboard, which then took its sweet time turning on again whilst the rest of the ensemble limped heroically through the finale (most of them in fits of giggles by this point). Ah well, I comfort myself – musical mishaps will always be a part of live performance. Here is a video of a rather well-handled one!
Excellent – love the last video of how to cope with aplomb with an unexpected situation!
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