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)