Friday the 13th: the number 13 in music

13 instruments, 13 operas, 13 children… The lives and works of composers are filled with (subconscious) references to the famous unlucky number.

Friday the 13th: the number 13 in music
Friday the 13th: the number 13 in music, © Getty / imageBROKER/Lilly

Triskaidekaphobia, or rather, a fear of the number 13: an unlucky number for many, a lucky one for others, the number 13, and Friday the 13th in particular, has stirred fears and superstitions for centuries.

Our fear of the number 13 originates from the Bible. During the Last Supper, 13 guests were present: Jesus and his twelve apostles, amongst whom Judas, whose betrayal would later result in the arrest and death of the Messiah.

The number 13 is thus considered unlucky by man, and therefore we often find no "Room 13" in hotels, or "seat 13" in most planes... But what about in music?

Schoenberg: a fear of 13 letters

The composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874 - 1951) was particularly superstitious, to the point of removing the second "A" in the name "Aaron" in the title of his opera Moses und Aron, so as to avoid a name with 13 letters… Was the composer right in doing so? Not really, since the work remained unfinished.

It would seem as if Schoenberg was haunted by the number 13 his entire life: the Austrian composer was born on Sunday 13 September, in 1874, and passed away on Friday 13 July, at the age of 76... Those particularly superstitious will notice that 7+6= 13.

Rossini: 13 days of composition

Gioacchino Rossini was known for composing at an impressive speed... He allegedly completed his score for the Barber of Seville in only 13 days, an anecdote included (and certainly exaggerated) by Stendhal in Life of Rossini (1823).

Did the 13 days of composition bring luck or misfortune? The latter if we consider the opera's premiere, a veritable fiasco including the fall of one of the singers, a cat on stage, and an out-of-tune guitar… Rossini was even booed by his public. However, if we look at the work's posterity, the number 13 may have brought good fortune to the composer since the Barber of Seville is today an immensely famous operatic work.

A final detail of some interest, Rossini died on 13 November 1868.

Johann-Sebastian Bach: 13 children

The great Jean-Sébastien Bach was not only the father of Western classical music, but also the happy father, with his second wife Anna Magdalena, of 13 children: 

Christiana Sophia, Gottfried Heinrich, Christian Gottlieb, Elisabeth Juliana, Ernestus Andreas, Regina Johanna, Christiana Benedicta, Christiana Dorothea, Johann Christoph Friedrich, Johann August Abraham, Johann Christian, Johanna Carolina et Regina Susanna. 

Bizet: 13 versions of the Habanera

"Love is a gypsy child, who never, never follows the rules..." Who hasn't heard the famous habanera sung by Carmen in the eponymous opera by Georges Bizet? It's an undeniable hit, and yet it took the composer 13 attempts to complete the legendary melody. 

The numerous attempts were not due to an unsatisfied Bizet but rather by the singer of the role of Carmen, Célestine Galli-Marié, a demanding artist who wished that the melody be perfectly suited to her voice and style. For his 13th and final proposal, Bizet had the idea of using the air from a popular Spanish song, El Arriglito.

Beethoven: the infamous opus 13

In the case of Ludwig Van Beethoven, the opus 13 (his 13th composition) has become one of the composer's key works, a veritable show of force by the composer. First performed in 1799, it is known today as the Sonate Pathétique (or the Piano Sonata no.8). 

This work for piano is not only beautiful, it is also the first display of the composer's innovative musical style: though we can still hear in this Sonate Pathétique traces of the legacy and influence of previous great classical composers such as MozartandHaydn, we are also able to distinguish the start of a new style of expression, Romanticism. 

Satie: a 13-beat bar

In 1893, the impertinent and extravagant Erik Satie innovated and challenged the traditions of classical music by composing his Vexations, a single-bar composition with 13 beats. A number synonymous with imbalance, the 13-beat bar cannot therefore be divided into binary or ternary sub-sections, as was custom in Western classical music theory.  

Schumann: 13 little things

These "small, droll things" (as described by Robert Schumann himself) refer to the composer's famous Kinderszenen. Imbued with a childish spirit, poetic but also tormented, these short works for piano delighted audiences with their surprising gentleness.

Mozart: 13 wind instruments

The Gran Partita (1784) is perhaps one of the most famous instrumental works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, composed for (you guessed it) 13 wind instruments, and double bass. A serenade initially conceived as an evening salon entertainment, it has since become a key work of the classical repertoire.

Almost a century later, Richard Strauss also composed a work for thirteen wind instruments. He thus created his Suite in B-flat major, an early composition which brought moderate recognition and a certain notoriety, allowing the fortunate composer to travel for the first time beyond his native town of Munich.

One final anecdote…

It is worth remembering that the 13th year was an important one for many composers: the young Beethoven was named assistant organist of the Imperial Court of Austria, George Gershwin began studying the piano, Jacques Offenbach published his first work, and Mstislav Rostropovitch gave his first solo concert by performing the Cello Concerto no.1 by Camille Saint-Saëns.