Classical Tyro

A Beginner's Guide to Great Music

Rachmaninoff's Hands

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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 (originally posted on sonataform.blogspot.com)
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Prokofiev, Symphony No. 1, Fourth Movement (1917)

Although this symphony was composed in 1917, it sounds like a throwback to the type of symphony that Joseph Haydn wrote in the late 1700s — many even called it Prokofiev's "Classic" Symphony. I love the tempo Valery Gergiev establishes on this recording. He has the music sounding playful and liberated. (To read more about this symphony, go to my blog entry titled “Decorating Time with Prokofiev’s First Symphony.")


Valery Gergiev conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker
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Borodin, Polovtsian Dance No. 17 (1897)

Music was only a hobby for Alexander Borodin, a Russian physician and chemist who worked tirelessly for women’s rights. In addition to the great music he composed, his legacy includes a School of Medicine for Women, which he established in St. Petersburg in 1872. What a guy! Make sure you stay with this video beyond the beautiful opening themes and don’t miss all the fun that begins at 4:06.


Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the Sommernachtskonzert
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Decorating Time with Prokofiev's First Symphony

"Ah, music! A magic far beyond all we do here!"

– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Music can cleanse a melancholy soul and calm a cluttered mind. It can cause you to weep tears of joy, and you won’t even know what is affecting you so deeply.

None of that is hyperbole. The power of music is mystical — especially classical music.

A listener might know nothing about classical music and still feel an emotional rush when listening to the crescendo at the end of a symphony. However, classical music is more enjoyable when the listener possesses some fundamental knowledge of music and the “story” it is telling. All told, the more someone knows, the better the music will sound.

As an example, listen to the video I’ve embedded below and follow the time indicators. What you will hear can be classified as sonata form, but there’s no reason at this time to get too technical. Simply think of each theme as a “character” in a story and then follow that story’s narrative as if you were reading a book or watching a movie.

Prokofiev, Symphony No. 1, First Movement (1917) conducted by Leo Siberski


0:07 – Theme 1: The opening theme begins in the key of D major. Since it is in a major key, it should sound bright and upbeat. (A minor key would probably sound dark and downbeat.)

1:04 – Theme 2: Think of this theme, composed in A major, as the second character in the story.

1:57 – Development: Think of this section as one containing much action. Something is happening. Close your eyes and imagine the movie in your head. You should be able to hear bits and pieces of the first two themes.

3:08 – Theme 1 Returns in C Major: Notice that this theme has emerged from the development in a major key (happy and upbeat). It looks like everything will end on a positive note. (No pun intended.)

3:43 – Theme 2 Returns in D Major: Hearing this theme in D major should make you feel that you are back where you began. All is well.

4:13 – Coda: This section tells us that the piece is over. (The word “coda” is Italian for “tail.”)

Not so bad, eh? Watch this video more than once. Watch it often enough that you become so familiar with the music that you will know what is coming next. Indeed, the more you listen, the better the music will sound.

It’s been said that we use art to decorate space and music to decorate time. The time spent understanding this short piece should provide you with time that has been well decorated.

© 2015 James L. Smith

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Scriabin, The Poem of Ecstasy (1908)

Kirill Petrenko, a 43-year-old Russian-Austrian conductor, has recently been named chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the world’s great orchestras. Petrenko will replace Sir Simon Rattle, who has served as principal conductor since 2002. Rattle will leave the Berlin Philharmonic in August 2018.


Kirill Petrenko conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 2012
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