Rhapsody in College: Mystery of Hunter's 1897 Steinway Grand Owned by George and Rose Gershwin Unraveled via New York Times

By Ian Holubiak on Apr 16, 2014 06:03 PM EDT

A Steinway grand, a Model A, 6 feet 2 inches long, which carries the serial number 87592, making it the 87,592nd piano since the company began--making pianos in the family kitchen.

The item in question: an 1897 Steinway donated by Rose Gershwin.

It began with Joseph B. Tallmadge, a pianist and organist active in 1914 who played weddings and funerals and taught the sticks to students.

One of his students, according to Richard N. Burke, a Hunter professor of music history, claims that one of Tallmadge's students was Donald Jay Grout, who ultimately became the chairman of the music department at Cornell University.

The trail runs cold here, and the piano falling into the laps of the Gershwins remains a mystery in and of itself.

The piano spent 40 years at the Roosevelt House, a townhouse on East 65th Street that Sara Delano Roosevelt commissioned in 1906, as a wedding present for her son, Franklin, and daughter-in-law Eleanor.

A nonprofit consortium bought the piano on behalf of Hunter students after Sara's death in 1941. President Roosevelt brought the price down and also donated $1,000 for new student library books.

Mrs. Gershwin, thus, was on the board of the Roosevelt House League at Hunter; and when she died in 1948, a year after the donation was made, the New York Times ran a death notice that described her as "a devoted patron of Roosevelt House and its student activities."

The mystery ends here, and Mrs. Gershwin was able to donate the piano after she inherited George's estate when he died in 1937. But this piano, sadly, was not the Gershwin that is at the University of Michigan or the Library of Congress.

"It gave me a frisson; Gershwin in all extreme likelihood touched those same keys," says Professor Burleson, an associate professor of music and director of piano studies at Hunter.

"I felt that it radiated a kind of authenticity. I've played that piece many times, but I felt a particular responsibility to do a good job on it lest the ghost of Gershwin haunt my dreams," he recanted.

So, thanks to James Barron at the New York Times for unveiling a mystery that's valid for some of the most obscure Gershwin trivia. 

Maybe this is the piano in question?

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TagsGeorge Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, Steinway, Rose Gershwin, Roosevelt house, Sara Delano Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hunter College, The New York Times, James Barron

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