The Phony Disease That Helped Researchers Identify Bach's (Purported) Body

Rischgitz/Getty Images
Rischgitz/Getty Images

Three days after Johann Sebastian Bach died from a stroke in July 1750, his body was laid in an oak coffin and hauled to a cemetery outside the city walls of Leipzig, Germany. Like many burials back then, no headstone was placed to mark Bach’s plot. Within years, the exact location of the composer’s grave had faded from memory.

Bach died a respected musician, but was by no means a superstar. That would change over the coming decades: An 1802 biography about his life—as well as a burgeoning interest in the musical works of the past—would launch him to the top of the newly formed classical music canon. Bach grew to become a source of national pride, and musical pilgrims worldwide were hungry to visit his grave to pay him homage. In 1894, a group set out to find where, exactly, he was buried.

Rumor suggested that Bach’s corpse lay six paces from the south door of St. John's Church, but nobody was certain. “The oral tradition apparently originated in 1894 from a 75-year-old man, who in turn was informed about the location 60 years earlier by a 90-year-old gardener employed at the graveyard,” write Richard H.C. Zegers and several other scholars in the Medical Journal of Australia [PDF]. That same year, Pastor F. G. Tranzschel, the vestry chairman at St. John’s, ordered an excavation based on that information.

Dr. Wilhelm His Sr., a Leipzig professor of anatomy, served as the dig’s leading egghead. As workers dug into the slop and mud of the church graveyard, His inspected the skeletons to see if the bones resembled those of a 65-year-old man. He described the scene as “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” (To say the least, this was not history’s most scientific excavation.)

Thankfully, there was one telltale sign to look for: Most of the coffins in the cemetery were pine, but Bach’s bones were supposedly entombed in a casket of pricey oak. The crew found at least three such coffins. One contained a young woman (definitely not Bach), a second contained remains that had been smashed to splinters (hopefully not Bach), and a third contained a beautifully preserved skull (Hallelujah?). In the words of musicologist and Bach expert David Yearsley at Counterpunch, Wilhelm His believed this skeleton “belonged to a man of distinction.” He studied the cranial cavity and even attempted to reconstruct the skull's face, later claiming in a book that this "strange skull of very distinct and by no means ordinary forms" belonged to J.S. Bach. Shortly after, the skeleton was laid in a crypt below the altar of St. John's Church.

But there was always a lingering doubt that His got it wrong. In 1949, Bach’s purported skeleton was exhumed and later reburied in St. Thomas Church in downtown Leipzig (where the composer once worked as Kapellmeister, or music director). Before this celebrated second burial, researchers decided to give the bones a second look. The skeleton was re-examined by the oral surgeon Wolfgang Rosenthal, who claimed to see proof of Bach’s identity not in the skull—but in a region, well, slightly south.

Rosenthal was intrigued by abnormal bony growths, called exostoses, around the skeleton’s pelvic ring, as well as growths at sites of muscle and ligament attachment, called enthesophytes, near the arms. Both are signs of occupational stress, common in physically active people who make repetitive motions day-in and day-out.

Rosenthal wondered: Could a lifetime of organ-playing cause somebody to develop these bony growths? After all, an organist must regularly make awkward, repetitive foot and arm movements—especially if he or she practices a lot. To test his hypothesis, Rosenthal x-rayed the hips of 11 professional organists organists who, like Bach, had been playing since childhood. In a paper published more than a decade later, he claimed that all of them showed signs of the same bony growths as Bach's purported bones. Rosenthal came away convinced that not only had he re-confirmed the identity of the skeleton, he had discovered a new medical ailment: Organistenkrankheit, or organist’s disease.

Unfortunately for Rosenthal and fans of weird diseases with fun German names, the surgeon may have been mistaken. In 2007, researchers at the Academic Medical Center of Amsterdam tried to replicate Rosenthal's experiment, this time adding a control group of non-musicians. According to their report in the Medical Journal of Australia, of the 12 church organists x-rayed, only 33 percent had growths near the pelvis. Damningly, 75 percent of the non-organ-playing control group also showed an incidence of bony hip growths.

While the researchers admitted that their sample size was small, their work does appear to throw a wrench in Rosenthal's hypothesis. “Our findings do not support the existence of Orgnistenkrankheit as a condition among organists,” the research team wrote. Furthermore, they concluded that "given the uncertainties about the burial site, His's controversial facial reconstruction, and Rosenthal's irreproducible Organistenkrankheit, it is unlikely that the remains are those of Bach." Evidence, it seems, that hips really can lie.

11 Things You May Not Know About John Lennon

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before he was one of the world's most iconic musicians, John Lennon was a choir boy and a Boy Scout. Let's take a look at a few facts you might not have known about the leader and founding member of The Beatles

1. HE WAS A CHOIR BOY AND A BOY SCOUT.

Yes, John Lennon, the great rock 'n' roll rebel and iconoclast, was once a choir boy and a Boy Scout. Lennon began his singing career as a choir boy at St. Peter's Church in Liverpool, England and was a member of the 3rd Allerton Boy Scout troop.

2. HE HATED HIS OWN VOICE.

Incredibly, one of the greatest singers in the history of rock music hated his own voice. Lennon did not like the sound of his voice and loved to double-track his records. He would often ask the band's producer, George Martin, to cover the sound of his voice: "Can't you smother it with tomato ketchup or something?"

3. HE WAS DISSATISFIED WITH ALL OF THE BEATLES'S RECORDS.

Dining with his former producer, George Martin, one night years after the band had split up, Lennon revealed that he'd like to re-record every Beatles song. Completely amazed, Martin asked him, "Even 'Strawberry Fields'?" "Especially 'Strawberry Fields,'" answered Lennon.

4. HE WAS THE ONLY BEATLE WHO DIDN'T BECOME A FULL-TIME VEGETARIAN.

John Lennon (1940 - 1980) of the Beatles plays the guitar in a hotel room in Paris, 16th January 1964
Harry Benson, Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

George Harrison was the first Beatle to go vegetarian; according to most sources, he officially became a vegetarian in 1965. Paul McCartney joined the "veggie" ranks a few years later. Ringo became a vegetarian not so much for spiritual reasons, like Paul and George, but because of health problems. Lennon had toyed with vegetarianism in the 1960s, but he always ended up eating meat, one way or another.

5. HE LOVED TO PLAY MONOPOLY.

During his Beatles days, Lennon was a devout Monopoly player. He had his own Monopoly set and often played in his hotel room or on planes. He liked to stand up when he threw the dice, and he was crazy about the properties Boardwalk and Park Place. He didn't even care if he lost the game, as long as he had Boardwalk and Park Place in his possession.

6. HE WAS THE LAST BEATLE TO LEARN HOW TO DRIVE.

Lennon got his driver's license at the age of 24 (on February 15, 1965). He was regarded as a terrible driver by all who knew him. He finally gave up driving after he totaled his Aston-Martin in 1969 on a trip to Scotland with his wife, Yoko Ono; his son, Julian; and Kyoko, Ono's daughter. Lennon needed 17 stitches after the accident.

When they returned to England, Lennon and Ono mounted the wrecked car on a pillar at their home. From then on, Lennon always used a chauffeur or driver.

7. HE REPORTEDLY USED TO SLEEP IN A COFFIN.

According to Allan Williams, an early manager for The Beatles, Lennon liked to sleep in an old coffin. Williams had an old, abandoned coffin on the premises of his coffee bar, The Jacaranda. As a gag, Lennon would sometimes nap in it.

8. THE LAST TIME HE SAW PAUL MCCARTNEY WAS ON APRIL 24, 1976. 

Paul McCartney (left) and John Lennon (1940-1980) of the Beatles pictured together during production and filming of the British musical comedy film Help! on New Providence Island in the Bahamas on 2nd March 1965
William Lovelace, Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

McCartney was visiting Lennon at his New York apartment. They were watching Saturday Night Live together when producer Lorne Michaels, as a gag, offered the Beatles $3000 to come on the show. Lennon and McCartney almost took a cab to the show as a joke, but decided against it, as they were just too tired. (Too bad! It would have been one of the great moments in television history.)

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO SING LEAD ON THE BEATLES'S FIRST SINGLE, 1962'S "LOVE ME DO."

Lennon sang lead on a great majority of the early Beatles songs, but Paul McCartney took the lead on their very first one. The lead was originally supposed to be Lennon, but because he had to play the harmonica, the lead was given to McCartney instead.

10. "ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE" WAS THE BEST LYRIC HE EVER WROTE.

A friend once asked Lennon what was the best lyric he ever wrote. "That's easy," replied Lennon, "All you need is love."

11. THE LAST PHOTOGRAPHER TO SNAP HIS PICTURE WAS PAUL GORESH.

Ironically (and sadly), Lennon was signing an album for the person who was to assassinate him a few hours later when he was snapped by amateur photographer Paul Goresh on December 8, 1980.

Lennon obligingly signed a copy of his latest album, Double Fantasy, for Mark David Chapman. Later that same day, Lennon returned from the recording studio and was gunned down by Chapman, the same person for whom he had so kindly signed his autograph.

Morbidly, a photographer sneaked into the morgue and snapped a photo of Lennon's body before it was cremated the day after his assassination. Yoko Ono has never revealed the whereabouts of his ashes or what happened to them.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

Interactive Music Map Showcases the Most Sung-About Places in the World

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

New York City has inspired many a musician, from Frank Sinatra to Stevie Wonder to Alicia Keys. So it probably won’t come as a surprise that the “city that never sleeps” is the most sung-about place on the planet, with more than 160 songs mentioning it by name, according to an analysis of 200,000 popular songs from Celebrity Cruises.

This only accounts for songs that have landed in one of the top 40 spots on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 or UK Official Singles chart since 1960. Celebrity Cruises took the lyrics of those songs and conducted a linguistics analysis and data visualization to pinpoint the cities, neighborhoods, and states that feature most prominently in music. They ended up with 2000 songs by 896 artists who sang about 420 different places around the world.

An interactive tool called Music Mapped lets you explore these inspiring destinations. After New York, London is the second most-sung-about place with 101 songs, followed by Los Angeles (87 songs), the state of California (67 songs), and Hollywood (66 songs). You can also browse by genre and decade, so in case you’ve been dying to know how many ‘80s country/folk songs have been written about Nova Scotia, the answer is one ("Letter From America" by The Proclaimers).

You can also search by place, artist, or country. Of all the artists included in this analysis, Drake is the one who has name-dropped the most places in his lyrics. So far, he’s rapped about 29 places, including his hometown of Toronto and farther-flung destinations like Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Jay-Z has rapped about 27 places, followed by Elvis (who sang about 23 places), Tinie Tempah (22 places), and The Beach Boys (22 places).

Check out the Celebrity Cruises website to try out the interactive map for yourself.

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