A little while ago I wrote about my sudden insight that most printed fingering in the scores of piano pieces was probably devised by men, and for male pianists.
Yesterday I had some follow-up to that from a doctor who had done some further reading about male and female hand sizes.
He showed me the results of an Australian study which was looking into the potential for keyboards with narrower keys. It noted that the width of the keys on the piano keyboard had expanded along with piano repertoire in the 19th century, and that the larger stretch did not suit everyone. Their study of male and female hand sizes concluded that the average female hand-span (measuring with the hand fully stretched out) is a whole inch shorter than the average male’s. Many male pianists find it easy to stretch a tenth (an octave plus two more notes, eg C-E), but hardly any women do.
The study had then attempted to correlate hand size with ‘level of acclaim’. (At this point I admit I looked sceptical.) They had surveyed nearly 500 pianists, categorising them as having International acclaim, National acclaim, or ‘regional/amateur’ status.
The results showed that there were no internationally acclaimed women with average-sized female hands. In the ‘International’ group, there were only two women and they both had large hands – large for a woman, that is, and in one case even larger than the average man’s.
‘Please don’t tell me it’s that simple’, I begged.
Now, there are lots of things one could ask about how ‘level of acclaim’ is measured. Many factors play into ‘acclaim’, not only pianistic. We might agree, however, that today it is more likely that an international career is based on ‘showcase’ repertoire, principally from the Romantic era or the 20th century: piano concertos and virtuoso pieces by Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Bartok.
These are works which require a large stretch – not exactly the same as a large hand, but a whole lot easier to achieve if you do have a large hand. And therefore more likely to be achievable by male pianists.
There have been one or two male pianists with small hands (eg Josef Hoffmann) who had smaller keyboards (ie with narrower keys) specially manufactured for themselves to play, but naturally this was rare, and meant that the small piano had to be transported about with the pianist, at prohibitively expensive cost.
There are women pianists who have carved out a niche with repertoire which does not routinely require either a large stretch or a large hand. Such repertoire tends to be from before 1850, and it is probably no coincidence that many renowned female pianists are particularly loved for their interpretations of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert.
Which is not to say that there are no male pianists who are loved for their playing of those composers, but you see my point.
Naturally it makes one wonder what could have been achieved if pianos were available in lots of sizes like violins and cellos are. As pianos are large, heavy and difficult to move, it makes sense that they are a standard size. But reading this survey, one cannot help reflecting on the far-reaching consequences for female pianists of this one-size piano.