Johann Sebastian Bach: size of his hands

I recall having read, decades ago, that the youthful works of JSB (when he did not care about them being copied by students or published) show often intervals of a tenth and were obviously the result of him having LARGE hands.

However, I just read a recent article stating that, according to iconography and indirect evidence via Forkel, actually JSB had SMALL hands!
Bianchi-Bach al Cembalo Mietke, 2019

Baffled, I just googled a bit and found the following:
Bach hands anatomy
where the conclusion is that he had HUGE hands.

Which conclusion should we trust?

From the Roberts article:
“In the study, anatomist and musician Andreas Otte analysed a photograph of what is believed to be Bach’s skeleton”.

So, the conclusion appears to hinge on whether the photograph is actually of Bach’s skeleton. If true, the photo clearly shows that his hands were huge. So huge, in fact, it is curious that there is no contemporary mention of them, to my knowledge anyway.

Does anyone know about this “Bach skeleton”?

There was an article to this topict in the National Geographic (of all places) just about a year ago

A skull supposedly Bach’s is extant, and forensic modellers have made reconstructions of his facial appearance from it. How accurate that work is I cannot comment. Whether the skull is genuine I cannot comment.

Here’s a medical article:

A rerun of this article appeared just about a year ago in The National Geographic (of all places). I wanted to include a copy of it in a 2 MB file, but the site won’t allow it with its maximum limit of over 4 MB (?). The article states that the skeletons is “historically believed to be Bach’s skeleton”.

What does the music itself tell us? Where are all these tenths in his
youthful works? Are these tenths sounded simultaneously, or is one of
the notes held over (which makes it easier to cheat, of course)? And
then, what was the normal or average octave span of the instruments Bach
played in his youth? There is quite a difference between a tenth on a
small French keyboard and on a Ruckers - probably around 15mm. I’ve
always been struck by the fact that his music never ore rarely had
impossible stretches for a normal-sized hand on a normal-sized instrument.

(There is an impossible chord - for me - in Die Kunst der Fuge - the
final chord of the unfinished fugue, as completed by Davitt Moroney ;-),
preceded by several other rather difficult but non-simultaneous tenths.
My conclusion is that the editor must have large hands, and/or a small
French-style octave span.)

Le 17/09/2020 23:49, Claudio Di Veroli via The Jackrail écrit :

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Thank you Dennis, for this reference to my Art of Fugue completion! Over the years I have heard many players perform my completion on the harpsichord, and they all seemed to manage. That “large 10th” (low D to Tenor F sharp) is quite possible for me on most harpsichord keyboards, especially French keyboards of the Blanchet and Taskin type, but also of course on the smaller French keyboards of the late seventeenth century.

I don’t have especially large hands, I think – they are certainly smaller than were Gustav Leonhardt’s but larger than Kenneth Gilbert’s, for example. Such large 10ths are harder in the right hand than the left, for some reason. Which is interesting because in the French organ repertoire there are very often 10ths in the left hand but very rarely in the right… I’ve thought about this a lot over the years and have come to the conclusion that it’s not just a question of hand size (although that does play a significant part, of course) but also of elasticity of the hand. Closed, my two hands are the same size, but the left hand – I am left handed – opens up more, the equivalent of an extra note. 10ths in the left hand are generally without a problem, both the smaller 10ths (such as A up to C natural or G up to B) and the large 10ths (D up to F sharp or E flat up to G). I can do 10ths in the right hand but it’s more of a stretch; I can do a small 11th in the left hand, but that’s a real stretch… Bach is somewhere said to have had a large span in both hands – over an octave plus a fifth. If he had hands as large as Gustav Leonhardt’s and was playing on a small keyboard, that would not be impossible, I think.

You ask for an example of a 10th in Bach’s earlier works. One smaller 10th that can trip me up unless I pay attention is in the C minor Toccata, BWV 911, bar 22 (3rd beat). Also at bar 56 of the same piece there’s a large 10th (several manuscripts give the Alto here as two eighth notes, G E flat, which is correct thematically; the rhythmic alteration given only by some later manuscripts look very much like an attempt to make a difficult moment a little easier for smaller hands…). In general, I find that the harpsichord Toccatas (if indeed they really are written for harpsichord…) use the fingers differently and make greater demands on the hands.

Less obscure are the occasional 10ths in the WTC. (There are plenty of small 10ths.)

There’s an unusually tricky spot in the penultimate bar of the 3-part Sinfonia in E minor, BWV 793, where admittedly the large 10th in the RH isn’t actually sounded together, but it hardly makes for a convincingly “cantable Art” (see Bach’s “Anleitung” for this work) to chop off the Alto G in order to play the high B… But on a small keyboard this is not problematic, especially on a clavichord with low key dip.

And of course there are plenty of 10ths in both hands in Contrapunctus 13 in the Art of Fugue – the original version in three parts, not the arrangement for two harpsichords. For those who, like me, are convinced this is a quite playable piece for one player with ten fingers, the demands made on the hands are certainly unusual, but not unlike what can be found in the more difficult corners of the rest of Bach.

Personally – and here it is certainly a question of combining (a) bigger hands that expand, (b) a smaller keyboard, and © an instrument without an exaggerated key dip – I have regularly been able to manage, in concert, the famous chord in the inversus of Contrapunctus 13, at bar 59, where the bass has a low G, the middle part is middle C sharp, and the right hand high B flat. For proof, there is even somewhere a recording of me having a public debate about the Art of Fugue on French radio with the French scholar Jacques Chailley, who didn’t delieve the Art of Fugue was a harpischord work. He rounded on me saying there was a bar that was “manifestly unplayable”. My harpsichord was standing in front of us since I was going to play the whole work as a concert immediately following the discussion, so I just got up and played the passage, saying “You mean this bar?” And he replied “Yes! That’s the unplayable one!” Only then did he realise that I’d just played it in front of him, live on the radio…

The passage is, of course, virtually impossible (except for giants) on a piano, due to the size of the keys and the key dip.

As for Bach’s hands and the identity of the skeleton dug up and later taken to be Bachs, if I may cite from my own book about him Bach, An Extraordinary Life (London: ABRSM, 2000):

“He was buried (according to an oral tradition) in a ‘flat grave’ situated ‘six paces from the south wall’ of the Johanniskirche. An engraving by Joachim Ernest Scheffer dating from 1749, just one year before his funeral, clearly shows the graveyard and the south side of the church (near the present Grassi Museum). A visitor in 1800 (J. F. Rochlitz) commented that his tomb could no longer be identified and in 1833 the cemetery was closed and abandoned. Schumann was horrified to find that the grave was not marked. … On 22 October 1894, more than half a century later, three oak coffins were found in about the right spot. One contained the bones of a young woman; another had a skeleton with a broken skull. The third contained the bones of an ‘elderly man, not very large, but well built’. The skull, with its prominent jaw bone, high forehead, deep-set eye sockets and marked nasal angle, was compatible with the famous portrait of Bach painted by Haussmann in 1746. The skeleton was therefore identified by the anatomist Wilhelm His (using means that modern science would find rather summary) as being very probably that of Bach.” (pp.105-106.)

It is now thought that Bach was probably about 5ft 7 inches high. With shoes of the period (men’s shoes then often had quite substantial heels) and with a wig on, he would have seemed taller.

The “Bach body” was moved in 1900 to inside the Johanniskirche. But that church was badly bombed by the Allies during the Second World War (on 4 December 1943). The coffin was later re-identified and six years later, in 1949, was moved to St Thomas’s church. It was finally moved to its present position (it’s fourth resting place) in 1964. “Although there is no absolute certainty that the body is Johann Sebastian Bach’s, its presence there is more than symbolic. It makes the Thomaskirche the uncontested centre of all Bach pilgrimages. Even visitors who are aware of the doubts about the identification of the body and who are uncomfortable with musical hagiography cannot leave the church unmoved.” (p.106)

Best wishes,

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Thank you, Davitt, for your sharing your thoughts. Much appreciated, as
ever. (I do think the AoF stretch you mention is impossible for many of
us - and it’s not easy to cheat there and get away with it! Among the
French composers, Chambonnières has a few awkward stretches in the left
hand. I wonder if there are any comments on his hands in the sources (or
on those of anyone else).)

Le 18/09/2020 11:39, Davitt Moroney via The Jackrail écrit :

To my knowledge, there’s nothing about Chambonnières’s hands – only the exceptional quality of his beautiful playing. (In Mersenne and Loret, for example.) The earliest comment I know about a French harpsichordist’s hands is the one that says Louis Marchand has very large and beautiful hands.

Chambonnières, of course, would have been playing on smaller French keyboards of the 17th century. It’s interesting, but I’ve never noticed anything unusual about his hand stretches, which I suppose must mean his music fits my hands comfortably, when I am on the right keyboards.
The same is true for Louis Couperin – who has some quite large stretches – but again, most are in the left hand (and I’m leaving out, naturally, those that are attributable to a short octave in the bass).
Players develop a fine-tuned sense of which composers had hands similar to our own. For what it’s worth, mine are, I feel, closer morphologically to Bach’s, Couperin’s, and Byrd’s, than to Handel’s, Scarlatti’s, or Rameau’s… I think that sometimes our affinity for particular composers may be partly physical, not just musical…

Best wishes,