Harold C. Schonberg writes that Rachmaninoff’s hands were “supple,” “spectacular,” and “phenomenal.” The Sound Post reported that his oversized hands were “contrarily delicate.” 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!” Max Harrison in Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings, reports that “personal acquaintance, Cyril Smith said 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 as far as Cyril Smith described. Anyone with average-sized hands will probably be astonished that fingers could 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. Young states, “The extraordinary size and extensibility of Rachmaninoff’s hands might indicate Marfan’s syndrome.”
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 may 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.”
Earl Wild, a virtuoso musician whose opinion we should trust, wrote the following in his memoir: “As much as I admired Josef Hofmann for the clarity and beauty of his playing, I was totally enamored with Sergei Rachmaninoff for the elegance, personality, passion, and evenness of piano tone that he brought to all of his performances.”
As D.A. Young concluded in his article about Rachmaninoff’s Marfan’s 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.”
All told, the size of Rachmaninoff’s hands, an inevitable part of any discussion concerning his life and music, are almost irrelevant to his musicianship.