University of Michigan Acquires Treasured George Gershwin Steinway

As seen in the Winter/Spring 2014 edition of the Steinway Chronicle.

One of America’s most prominent and prolific composers, George Gershwin’s legacy is honored through the Gershwin initiative.

Opening his email after a long weekend last April, Robert Grijalva probably felt as if he just unfolded a map leading to Montezuma’s Treasure. The director of piano technology at the University of Michigan joyfully learned that George Gershwin’s 1933 Model A Steinway would be leaving a New York City apartment for the U-M School of Music, Theatre and Dance.

Marc Gershwin, George’s nephew, was moving to the west coast and offered the iconic instrument to complete a freshly-minted relationship between U-M and the Gershwin Archives. Christopher Kendall, Dean of the U-M School of Music, Theatre and Dance, describes Gershwin’s music as the “soundtrack of American identity” whose personality traits likely revolved around the historic Steinway.

“The powerful aesthetic insight of George and Ira Gershwin was that great music could be made for any audience anywhere – in the concert hall, the opera house, the theatre, the jazz club,” he observes. “Quality depended not on the category of music being made be it classical or popular, but on the imagination of the musician. George, sometimes with Ira by his side, would have composed popular songs, opera and orchestral works on this piano.”

The Model A is one of three George Gershwin pianos in the United States. The others are in the Library of Congress and the American Songwriters Hall of Fame. George took delivery of the piano while preparing for the 10th anniversary tour of “Rhapsody in Blue.” He likely used the instrument to create portions of “Porgy and Bess,” first performed in 1935.

In this rare image from 1935, George Gershwin works at the Steinway Model A recently donated by his nephew to the University of Michigan. Photos courtesy of the Ira and Leonore Gershwin trust.

George Gershwin was a Steinway Artist and no stranger to the Steinway family. At one of many high society dinner parties hosted by Julia Steinway in the 1920s, he joined a star-powered guest list that included Vladimir Horowitz, the Fritz Kreislers and the Sergei Rachmaninoffs, according to Richard K. Lieberman, author of the book, Steinway & Sons.

In partnership with the estates of George and Ira, U-M recently launched the Gershwin Initiative, a multi-faceted project uniquely designed to showcase the duos’ distinguished lyrics and music. Musicology faculty and collaborators will create the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition, producing new, scholarly imprints of the brothers’ complete musical legacy. In addition, U-M will have Gershwin-related courses, symposia, and, most importantly, performances “in which our voice, orchestral, jazz, and musical theatre students and faculty will bring the edition drafts to life on stage,” explains Dean Kendall.

The piano’s original action, like the piano itself, was handcrafted in the Steinway factory in New York during the Great Depression.

He envisions the prized piano being used for a variety of performances in the future. “Marc Gershwin donated his uncle’s instrument as a symbol of our partnership, but more than that I know he wants this instrument to have new life making music, to be accessible to our students and faculty musicians,” he said. Currently undergoing restoration, the Gershwin Steinway is expected to be front and center for a dedication recital later this year. “All of our students and faculty sincerely appreciate the excellence of the more than 100 Steinway instruments we have on our stages and in our practice facilities,” Dean Kendall said.

Grijalva, meanwhile, remains vigilant about guarding his school’s newly-discovered treasure. “We talked a lot about being sensitive to the history of the instrument, to figure out the right way to preserve it and to make sure people understand that this is a Gershwin Steinway,” he says.

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