Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Sergei Rachmaninov, the pianist with very big hands

Sergei Rachmaninov, the famous Russian composer, pianist, and composer, was born in 1873 into a family that descended from the Moldavian prince Stephen the Great. At age four he began piano lessons and already displayed remarkable talent. He was sent to study music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory when ten years old, and, upon being awarded a scholarship, continued his studies Moscow Conservatory. He graduated in 1892, and at that time had already composed several piano and orchestral pieces. In 1901 his Piano Concerto No. 2 was enthusiastically received.

For the next sixteen years, he conducted at the Bolshoi Theatre, then moved to Dresden and also toured the United States. Leaving Russia with his family after the 1918 revolution, he settled in the United States, at first in New York City. There he devoted most of his time to piano and conducting performances, so that his time for composition was reduced. Between 1918 and 1943, he completed just six works, including Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Symphony No. 3, and Symphonic Dances. In 1942 his failing health caused him to move to Beverly Hills. He was suffering from back pain, fatigue, and a persistent cough, was found to have an aggressive form of melanoma, and died in March in of 1943.

Rachmaninov was noted to have very big hands, an obvious advantage to a pianist in that it would greatly extend his reach. But this has also given rise to speculations that the big hands where a manifestation of a generalized medical condition. One possibility would have been Marfan’s syndrome, but his limbs were not unduly elongated and he had no other manifestations of that condition. Nor does he seem to have suffered from acromegaly, a condition usually caused by a tumor in the pituitary and causing the face and other parts of the body to be also enlarged. Although melanoma has on very rare occasions been associated with acromegaly, the consensus of those who have studied these rare and often inherited conditions is that Sergei Rachmaninov just happened to have had big hands.


  1. Ramachandran M, Aronson JK. The diagnosis of art: Rachmaninov’s hand span. J R Soc Med. 2006;99(10):529-30.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Fall 2018



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