I first heard about Sergei Rachmaninoff’s hands when I was in college and a friend of mine, a piano major, was told that she would not be required to play some of Rachmaninoff’s music because she lacked the reach in her fingers. Since that day, I have noticed that it is difficult to read about Rachmaninoff without the size of his hands creeping into the text. Indeed, the legend of his hands is so pervasive that I often sense writers grasping for adjectives to describe his hands the way someone learning to swim might struggle to breathe.
In The Lives of the Great Composers, Harold C. Schonberg writes that Rachmaninoff’s hands were “supple,” “spectacular,” and “phenomenal.” The Sound Post reports that his oversized hands were "contrarily delicate.” Wikipedia states, “Rachmaninoff possessed extremely large hands, with which he could easily maneuver through the most complex chordal configurations.”
And how big were Rachmaninoff's hands? In A Walk on the Wild Side, the pianist Earl Wild states, “His reach extended to a twelfth!” Put another way, Max Harrison in Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings reports that Rachmaninoff could "with his left hand stretch C–E-flat–G–C–G and the right could manage C (second finger)–E–G–C–E (thumb under).”
Sit at a piano and see if your fingers can stretch from middle C to G in the next octave. Anyone with average-sized hands will probably be astonished that fingers can reach that far.
The reason Rachmaninoff's hands were so large may have stemmed from a genetic disorder. In the British Medical Journal (Volume 293, December 20-27, 1986) D.A.B. Young states, “The extraordinary size and extensibility of Rachmaninoff's hands might indicate Marfan's syndrome.”
The disease is also mentioned in Wikipedia: “Along with his musical gifts, Rachmaninoff possessed physical gifts that may have placed him in good stead as a pianist. These gifts included exceptional height and extremely large hands with a gigantic finger stretch. They and Rachmaninoff's slender frame, long limbs, narrow head, prominent ears, and thin nose suggest that he may have had Marfan syndrome, a hereditary disorder of the connective tissue. This syndrome would have accounted for several minor ailments he suffered all his life. These included back pain, arthritis, eye strain and bruising of the fingertips.”
And how did the size of Rachmaninoff's hands affect his musical performance? Earl Wild states, “Hand size makes no difference whatsoever when playing the piano. As for the ideal fingers, Chopin’s boney, tapered fingers were perfect. Rachmaninoff also had marvelously tapered fingers, although in his case, it was his lush sound that made him famous as a pianist.”
Earl Wild also points out that the size of Rachmaninoff’s hands my have been an obstacle in his musical performance. “Rachmaninoff’s large hands, although a blessing, caused great problems for him…. In octave playing a large hand can be helpful, but an over-sized hand is definitely a hindrance. This is the reason we find so few octave passages in his compositions.”
If Rachmaninoff had not been a great musician, wholly committed to developing his skills as an artist, the size of his hands would not have mattered. He was not only one of the most highly acclaimed pianists of the twentieth century, he was also a great conductor and composer. Focusing too much attention on the size of his hands may be nothing more than an amusing sideshow.
As D.A.B. Young concluded in his article about Rachmaninoff's Marfan syndrome in the British Medical Journal, “I should add that Rachmaninov's eminence as a pianist was founded as much on his interpretation of the music of others, especially Chopin, as on the extraordinary virtuosity he displayed in performing some of his own compositions. Undoubtedly, his hands contributed to his virtuosity; but for his interpretation of others' work it was artistic genius, not large hands, that made his performance so memorable.”
Rachmaninoff playing the First Movement from his Piano Concerto No. 2
(Recorded in 1929 with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra)
Igudesman and Joo, "Rachmaninoff Had Big Hands"
© 2011 James L. Smith