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Bach's Body

Bach's big hands

Douglas Cowling wrote (February 26, 2007):
Was it CPE Bach who said that it his father had a prodigious hand-span?

Rachmaninoff certainly did ... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifKKlhYF53w

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 26, 2007):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< Was it CPE Bach who said that it his father had a prodigious hand-span? >
There's a spot in the D minor English Suite that pretty much requires the ability to catch an eleventh. Also, some spots in the mirror fugues of the Art of Fugue (BWV 1080) calling for parallel tenths, and rapidly interlocked leaps with the hands all the way extended.

The one in that D minor English Suite is the last bar of the Allemande. The right hand plays a chord F#-A-D, while the left hand plays tenor A. Then, still holding the chord (I have to use either 2-4-5 or 2-3-5 fingers on it), the right thumb reaches down and takes that tenor A, so the left hand is freed up to go play low D. Cool. That's a span of a major 6th between 1 and 2 of the right hand, and an eleventh between 1 and 5, and a fourth between 4 and 5 (or 3 and 5). Holding notes of an eleventh is considerably easier than playing them straight down
simultaneously.

There is one killer spot in the Ricercar a6 that I still have trouble with, and this one's a left hand bit. The thumb is holding Bb, and then Eb and G get played below it (either with 4-2 or 5-2)...no problem yet. But, the G is tied over to the next bar and 2 has to stay there, while the hand flexes to play octave A-flats. Try it! Thumb and 2 are squished together, and there's a seventh between 2 and 5. No way the right hand can help out on this, because it's playing three other notes starting a tenth above all this. And it's similarly holding an E-flat across the barline with 3 (almost has to be 3 because of the other motion preceding it), while the 1 and 5 now play C octaves around that held E-flat. Bars 74-75.

Thomas Braatz wrote (February 26, 2007):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
>>Was it CPE Bach who said that it his father had a prodigious hand-span?<<
In my reading, I have never come across claim or any reliable evidence of this. Remember also that the octave span on normal keyboards available in Bach's time was a little less than that normally found on a modern grand piano.

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 27, 2007):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< In my reading, I have never come across claim or any reliable evidence of this. >
Guess you'll need to go read more. :) The gushing tribute about this, by CFD Schubart in 1784-5, is on page 369 of the New Bach Reader or #903 in Bach-Dokumente III. It says Bach could reach a twelfth with the left hand and play other stuff with the middle fingers in this,
simultaneously.

However, that remark, being only about the left hand, has me a bit suspicious (and I jotted a marginal note to myself in my copy of NBR, some years ago). On instruments with short-octave basses, that's only the span of a tenth since the lowest notes are playing a third lower than they look. It's still a decent-sized span. Was Schubart referring to fully-chromatic instruments all the way down, or possibly to somebody's recollection of a performance on a short-octave? There's a bunch of 17th century stuff, and on into Reincken, that can't be played as written unless there's a short-octave bass.

Bach didn't write anything [to my hands' knowledge from playing all of it] in his keyboard music requiring more than a tenth, other than the trick from the D minor English Suite that I've already mentioned, plus the one spot in Contrapunctus 13 where one somehow has to play low G, middle C#, and high Bb. And that one works decently enough arpeggiated. (Like the way violinists have to arpeggiate passages that look on the page like three- or four-string chords.)

< Remember also that the octave span on normal keyboards available in Bach's time was a little less than that normally found on a modern grand piano. >
Define "normal" -- but in general I agree with the rest of that statement, other than "normal" not existing. Sometimes the spans were smaller (some French and some German), sometimes they were about the same as a modern grand, and sometimes they were larger (some Flemish and Italian). 18th century French harpsichords averaged about 159mm to the octave, while modern piano is 164 or 165. Some of the Couchets were 167 or bigger.

Bach allegedly liked the layout of a Mietke harpsichord that was slightly narrower than the typical French size...which would make it somewhere in the high 150s. That's a bit of a circumstantial argument (albeit a weak one) for not having abnormally large hands.

Narrower spans on the keyboard don't necessarily make it easier to play, anyway. They create different problems, in needing to keep the motions small and having less margin of error. My harpsichords here have 164, and reed organ at 162...but my clavichord has only 157. That much of a difference makes it harder to play, and not only from habit. The 7-mm reduction per octave still doesn't let me reach any comfortable eleventh, or make any of the tenths much better either, but it does make the tightly confined hand positions more treacherous than on 164.

Harry W. Crosby wrote (February 27, 2007):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< Was it CPE Bach who said that it his father had a prodigious hand-span?
Rachmaninoff certainly did ... >
So, Doug, I am sorry that I have nothing to add to the question of Bach's hand span, but I thought some of you might be amused to hear that I shook hands with Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1941 in the living room of the home of Lodewyk Lek, a wealthy Dutch refugee-in-advance as you might say who had come to La Jolla in the late '30s and, along with his two brothers and families were friends of my parents.

Louis, as he preferred to be called, was at least an acquaintance of Rachmaninoff and gave an afternoon party in the composer's honor --- no music involved, and I can tell you that SR never went near the piano. He was about my height or a little taller (I was 6' 1" or so when I was 15), very slim, almost drawn in appearance, and he certainly did have very large hands --- a handshake is very revealing of that. And I regret to say, a rather limp handshake it was. I am sure the man was not really well, and he died two years later.

Ed Myskowski wrote (February 27, 2007):
[To Harry W. Crosby] Sorry to be late on the thread, I initially read it as 'Bach's big bands' and thought it was more of the OVPP stuff, pro or con.

Now that I see where we are going, I am interested. There are some petite and feminine pianists in my circle who play Beethoven and Bach at least as well as any guy (Dude, to be precise). I have never asked or compared, but I am going to take a wild guess: they do not have especially unusual spans ('big hands') in comparison to the typical male pianio virtuoso.

Folks with average hands find a way to cheat? Practice more? Rehearse longer?

I am clueless, awaiting suggestions from the practicum or literature.

Julian Mincham wrote (February 27, 2007):
The British pianist Cyril Smith (married to the pianist Phyllis Sellick who is, or was until recently still alive) knew Rachmaninoff well. He describes his hand span in his fascinating autobiography 'Duet for three hands'

Julian Mincham wrote (February 27, 2007):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
< There are some petite and feminine pianists in my circle who play Beethoven and Bach at least as well as any guy (Dude, to be precise). I have never asked or compared, but I am going to take a wild guess: they do not have especially unusual spans ('big hands') in comparison to the typical male pvirtuoso.
Folks with average hands find a way to cheat? Practice more? Rehearse longer? >
I once read somewhere that Brahms had very small hands which could just encompass the octave--wouldn't have thought so from some of the concerto writing.

Nessie Russell wrote (February 27, 2007):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
< Folks with average hands find a way to cheat? Practice more? Rehearse longer? >
Yep. All of the above.

Chris Rowson wrote (February 27, 2007):
[To Nessie Russell] I am about 6 1" and have big hands. I can reach a 10th with confidence, and sort of an 11th but not for general use (roughly as Brad describes).

I knew a woman who is 5 4" and has small hands. She can reach a 10th with confidence, and sort of an 11th but not for general use.

Peter Smaill wrote (February 27, 2007):
[To Thomas Braatz] Like Thomas i do not know of any commentary on the size of Bach's hands , but his height I recall was well above average and that would make such a physical attribute palusible.

The chorale setting for "Schmucke dich" has a series of consecutive tenths in the lower parts which further suggest that this may have been the case - i stress, "may!".

Nessie Russell wrote (February 27, 2007):
[To Chris Rowson] The stretch between thumb and little finger can be miss-leading. Often it is the stretch between the other fingers which makes a difference.

Douglas Cowling wrote (February 27, 2007):
Peter Smaill wrote:
< Like Thomas i do not know of any commentary on the size of Bach's hands , but his height I recall was well above average and that would make such a physical attribute palusible. >
I've been waiting for someone to say, "Size doesn't matter"

Goodness, we're a prim and earnest group!

Shawn Charton wrote (February 27, 2007):
[To Douglas Cowling] I have laid out of this thread but I have to say, I have always thought of Bach's music as being better for smaller hands... I have HUGE hands and though I play Bach well, it is not as easy as, say, Liszt or Chopin to navigate. It comes as a suprise to me that we're surmizing that be had big hands. Any thoughts about his shoe size?? ;-) (how's that for prim, Doug?)

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 27, 2007):
< It comes as a suprise to me that we're surmizing that be had big hands. Any thoughts about his shoe size?? ;-) (how's that for prim, Doug?) >
What I'd really like to know, beyond shoe size, is how much of a heel he preferred to have on those shoes for his organ and pedal-harpsichord playing. Some of it works with a mostly-toes approach, but some of it can hardly be done without good heels. So: how much of a gap on the shoe, between heel and sole where pedalboard notes can be skipped over without playing? (I use standard-issue "Organmaster" shoes, which are lightweight and have a good heel, and leather sole for sliding -- rather like bowling shoes; but am curious what the shoe style was for Bach.) This is a practical musical question! I don't recall ever seeing any documentation of such things, in the Bach literature.

As for hand size: could Bach reach farther with 1-4 than with 1-5, or at least as far?

Nicholas Johnson wrote (February 27, 2007):
Bach's small nimble feet

[To Chris Rowson] Iv'e heard that Bach had small nimble feet and a fair sized pecker. Can any musicologist confirm ?

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 27, 2007):
Nicolas Johnson wrote:
< Ive heard that Bach had small nimble feet and a fair sized pecker. Can any musicologist confirm ? >
"How long should a man's legs be?"
"Long enough to reach the ground." - Abraham Lincoln

Peter Bright wrote (February 27, 2007):
Nicholas Johnson wrote:
< Iv'e heard that Bach had small nimble feet and a fair sized pecker. Can any musicologist confirm ? >
Well, in the Easter Oratorio comes the line:

"Come, hasten and run, ye nimble feet, to reach the cavern..." (mv 3)

So, perhaps he was writing from experience (just substitute the 'c' for a 't')...

Haven't yet found reference to 'pecker' yet in his vocal works but I don't give up easily...

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 27, 2007):
< Haven't yet found reference to 'pecker' yet in his vocal works but I don't give up easily... >
Well, try the Quodlibet: http://www.uvm.edu/~classics/faculty/bach/BWV524.html
The dude with his pitchfork, and all that.

Julian Mincham wrote (February 27, 2007):
Nicholas Johnson wrote:
< Ive heard that Bach had small nimble feet and a fair sized pecker. Can any musicologist confirm ? >
Don't know about size but it appears to have been kept busy.

Shawn Charton wrote (February 27, 2007):
[To Nicholas Johnson] OMG

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (February 28, 2007):
[To Shawn Charton] Umm... The small nimble feet I understand, but the pecker??? I thought we were talking about the playing of a musical instrument here - you know, that one the size of a house, with all the metal pipes?

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (February 28, 2007):
[To Bradley Lehman] I find there a reference to the Schoeps beer in Breslau... Otherwise known as Wroclaw. My Internet search leads me to believe that this Schoeps-Wroclaw association is no longer in effect. Not to mention that I've never heard of the stuff here in any other context besides the Internet ;;)

Neil Halliday wrote (February 28, 2007):
[To Cara Emily Thornton] I can see the difficulty in naming said instrument, given the drift of the conversation. :-)

Harry W. Crosby wrote (February 28, 2007):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
"Was it CPE Bach who said that it his father had a prodigious hand-span?
Rachmaninoff certainly did ..."
So, Doug, I have nothing to add to the question of Bach's hand span, but I thought some of you might be amused to hear that I shook hands with Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1941 in the living room of the home of Lodewyk Lek, a wealthy Dutch refugee-in-advance, as you might say who had come to La Jolla in the late '30s and, along with his two brothers and families, all of whom were friends of my parents.

Louis, as he preferred to be called, was at least an acquaintance of Rachmaninoff and gave an afternoon party in the composer's honor --- no music involved, and I can tell you that SR never went near the piano. He seemed to me then about my height or a little taller (I was 6' 1" when I was 15), and he was very slim, drawn in appearance, and he certainly did have very large hands --- a handshake is very revealing of that. And I regret to say, a rather limp handshake it was.

I am sure the man was not really well, and he died two years later.

 
 

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Last update: August 9, 2007 22:37:16