If you’ve never heard of George Gershwin — and there aren’t many who haven’t — you’ve no doubt heard some of his songs, either in movies or on stage. He was renowned for his composing and piano playing abilities. His music crossed genres, from classical to folk to jazz and he wrote songs for various media, from Broadway to movies to operas.

SMTD Gershwin Performance

8:30 p.m.
October 10th

Hill Auditorium

He was born in 1898 in Brooklyn, New York and started composing songs for money at the young age of 15. He went on to create hundreds of original songs, some on his own and some with his brother Ira, for the next two decades. In early 1937, Gershwin’s health began to deteriorate, but it wasn’t until July that doctors discovered he was suffering from a brain tumor. By that point it was too late and he passed away on July 11, 1937 at the age of 38.

Even though he died young, Gershwin left a musical legacy that has yet to be forgotten by family, fans, or fellow musicians. Throughout his career, he played many different pianos, but there are only three known pianos in the United States that he personally owned. One is at the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in New York City, the second is at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. and the third is now at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, where it has just undergone a complete restoration over the last year and a half.

The piano, a 1933 Model A Steinway, resided in Gershwin’s New York apartment up until the time of his death, and was then passed on to various family members, starting with his mother and eventually ending with his nephew Marc George Gershwin, the man responsible for donating the piano to the university.

“It arrived in April or June of last year,” said Mark Clague, an Associate Professor of Musicology and Director of Research in SMTD. “Before it got to us it had always resided in a Gershwin apartment in New York.”

The piano was donated shortly after the Gershwin Initiative was started in 2013. The Initiative is intended to be a partnership between the Gershwin Family and the University by allowing the University complete access to the Gershwin Archives. The archives in turn will then be used to create the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition, which is the research project at the core of the Initiative.

“A Critical Edition is sort of a scholarly researched publication where you go back and basically find every little scrap of paper having anything to do with any aspect of musical work,” explained Clague. “It could be for a literary work or an opera or just a book of poetry, and then you process that using editorial judgment to come up with the most reliable text possible of the represented work.”

The piano, which hadn’t been used, or used very infrequently, since Gershwin’s death, came to the University in need of some critical repairs if anyone wished to play it again.

“We discovered that there was a crack in the soundboard that was irreparable because its particular location crossed one of the bass bridges of the instrument,” Clague explained. “So the soundboard had to be replaced because the soundboard is basically the natural resonator of a piano … and that particular piece of wood had a crack in it so it didn’t vibrate right.”

Thanks in part to the Charles H. Gershenson Piano Fund, which provides the University with the resources it needs to repair its various Steinway pianos, the instrument was sent away to be fixed. It was sent to PianoCrafters, Inc., a company located in Plymouth, Mich., for meticulous restoration under the supervision of Assistant Professor Robert Grijalva, who is a certified Steinway Concert and Artist Division technician and U-M Director of Piano Technology. Over the years, it had suffered some damage that needed to be addressed in order to return it to full working order.

Because some of the damage was quite extensive, several of the original pieces needed to be replaced. The piano received a new soundboard, strings, keyboard, hammer and damper actions, but the exterior was left unchanged. While these parts did need to be replaced, the originals were by no means gotten rid of.

“One thing we did preserve was the keyboard,” Clague said. “The keyboard has ivory keys, which would be illegal today, but it will be preserved as a historic document about the way the instrument was made and manufactured in the 1930s because this particular piano is quite rare.”

Now that the instrument is finally finished, SMT&D will be having a special dedication ceremony to welcome it officially to it’s new home at the University. Members of staff as well as several students will perform a selection of Gershwin melodies, with the piano, of course, center stage.

Members of the campus community as well as the Ann Arbor community are encouraged to attend the free concert, alongside members of Gershwin’s family. Clague, while excited to hear the piano after its lengthy repairs, is more excited by the historical significance of the event and what the piano represents in the world of music.

“George developed his own unique voice and a lot of his music, with this combination of melody and this 20th century mechanical sound, was literally created in conjunction with the instrument,” Clague said. “It’s not like you touch it and George speaks to you, at least not in any literal way, but I think it’s a kind of symbol of the partnership between the University and George Gershwin, but I also think it’s something that will serve as a source of inspiration for our students.”

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