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.

Watch Freddie Mercury Sing 'Time Waits for No One' In a Previously Unreleased Video

Steve Wood, Express/Getty Images
Steve Wood, Express/Getty Images

There are a lot of things you probably don't know about Freddie Mercury, the Queen frontman whose life was as colorful as his stage persona. Offstage, the singer was famously enigmatic—a person bandmate Roger Taylor once described as "... shy, gentle, and kind.” Now, fans can catch a never-before-seen glimpse of the singer.

As Variety reports, a previously unreleased video of Mercury singing "Time Waits for No One” was recently dropped by Universal Music. Locked within the company’s vault since the time of its recording more than 30 years ago, in April 1986, the track was produced at Abbey Road Studios as part of Time, a concept album by Dave Clark (of the Dave Clark Five), based on a musical Clark created. Some will note how this version of the song is vastly different from the officially released track, which was an intentional choice.

"Dave Clark had always remembered that performance of Freddie Mercury at Abbey Road Studios from 1986,” Universal Music said in a statement. "The feeling [Clark] had during the original rehearsal, experiencing ‘goosebumps,’ hadn’t dissipated over the decades, and he wanted to hear this original recording—just Freddie on vocals and Mike Moran on piano.”

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Clark recounted the first time he ever saw Mercury perform: "I stood on the wings of the stage, and I was taken aback because this guy came out in a black leotard and I thought, ‘Wow, what’s this? Liza Minnelli?’ And then he opened his mouth and sang. It was unbelievable."

It was several years after witnessing that performance that Clark approached Mercury about joining the production for Time. Upon listening to a tape of "Time Waits for No One” and taking to it, Mercury agreed.

According to Universal Music’s announcement, Clark never lost those goosebumps he felt during that initial listen, and finally found the original footage in the spring of 2018. Now the video is available for listeners everywhere to share in the euphoric experience.

"The nice thing about the film is it’s Freddie on his own without anybody else, and it shows the emotion of the song,” Clark said. "We all know he’s a great singer, but I don’t think he’s been seen on his own with just a piano like this. It makes you realize how good somebody is.”

[h/t Variety]

The Bittersweet Detail You Might Have Missed in Game of Thrones's Final Episode

Gwendoline Christie in "The Iron Throne," Game of Thrones's series finale
Gwendoline Christie in "The Iron Throne," Game of Thrones's series finale
Helen Sloan, HBO

While the final episode of Game of Thrones was no doubt divisive, many of us can agree that Brienne of Tarth deserved better. One of her last scenes in the episode, "The Iron Throne," showed the newly-appointed knight putting aside any anger she might’ve had toward Jaime Lannister to finish his page in the White Book. The part was bittersweet after watching Jaime leave Brienne to be with his sister, Cersei—making us wish things could’ve turned out differently for our favorite knight.

There is one bittersweet detail in that scene that you might’ve missed, however, which makes it all the more sad. According to NME, one Twitter user voiced that they thought they heard the song “I Am Hers, She is Mine” playing in the background, which Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi considers to be the show’s wedding theme. Fans will remember the melody played when Robb Stark married Talisa back in season 2.

Djawadi has since confirmed it is the song, explaining to INSIDER why he included it:

"It's just a hint of what their relationship—if they had stayed together, if he was still alive—what it could have been. What they could have become. That's why I put that in there. I was amazed some people picked up on it. I was hoping people would go, 'Wait a minute, that's from season two.' And that was exactly my intent. I thought it would be very appropriate."

Though it’s only natural to imagine what could’ve happened if Jaime had stayed at Winterfell, let’s not forget that his honor (and character arc) went out the window when he headed back to King’s Landing.

[h/t NME]

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