I'll Build A Stairway to Paradise, Lady Be Good, Swanee




George Gershwin (Born Brooklyn, New York, 26 September 1898; died Hollywood, California, 11 July 1937)




George Gershwin was always at a piano, especially at a cocktail party. He obviously didn't like to stand around with a glass in his hand and make idle chit-chat. By the time he made these piano transcriptions in 1931, he was the toast of both coasts and refined his songs to suit the sophisticated company he kept. He took the "tin-pan alley" out of them and notated his own style of pianism: a variety of touches, accents and phrasing that show his unerring sense of rhythm and line. Unlike the big production numbers these pieces originally inspired, Gershwin's arrangements are usually confined to the 32-bar chorus and his dynamic markings rarely get above "forte." They treat the piano lovingly, not as a percussion instrument.




Valentine Waltzes, Nos. I, II, III, IX (1949)




GEORGE ANTHEIL (Born Trenton, New Jersey, 8 July 1900; died New York, 12 February 1959)




The "bad boy of music" had mellowed by the time he wrote his Valentine Waltzes in 1949. He had earlier been the darling of the avant-garde with his chamber piece Ballet Mécanique (1926), scored for anvils, airplane propellers, electric bells, automobile horns and sixteen player pianos, and his 1930 opera Transatlantic, featuring jazz effects and an aria sung in a bathtub. His exploits were as colorful as his music: his piano recitals in Europe often caused extravagant reactions among audience members, prompting him to carry a revolver onstage and instruct the ushers to bolt the exit doors before he began playing.




When he returned to the States in the '30s, he settled in Hollywood where he supported himself by writing film scores, inventing a torpedo (in collaboration with Hedy Lamarr), writing a syndicated lonely hearts column and a best-selling autobiography Bad Boy of Music. He found that one or two film scores per year freed him to compose the concert work that really interested him. He learned from cinematic exigencies to create vivid moods alterable at any moment to suit a dramatic twist on screen. His concert music ripened to a style bordering on neo-classicism and neo-romanticism, deeply influenced by symphonic literature.




Antheil's technical resourcefulness and flexibility came in handy when he composed (almost seemed to extemporize) eleven Valentine Waltzes as a Valentine's Day offering of deep affection for a lady who was not his wife. But the waltzes convey a bittersweet melancholy strangely at variance with the unrestrained gaiety of most Viennese waltzes. Valentine's melodies shrink back from expected goals, most often ending in a cul-de-sac. The harmony begins by progressing as expected, only to fade or slice in a way that sounds thwarted. Perhaps the irony of the waltz portrays Antheil's frustrated love; he is married and devoted to his wifehis lover is similarly situated. Yet they pursue their passion, while striving not to harm their chosen partners. In these waltzes, I sense a portrait of their romance.




Twelve Sonatinas (1980)




JOHN DIERCKS (Born Montclair, New Jersey, 19 April 1927)




John Diercks received his degrees from Oberlin and the Eastman School of Music, studying with Bernard Rogers, Alan Hovhaness and Howard Hanson. Later, pursuing a constant interest, he studied non-Western music at the University of Hawaii, the University of Washington and in extensive travel. Recipient of many commissions and awards, he has had residencies at the MacDowell Colony, Wolf Trap, Mountain Lake and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.




I met John Diercks when I was a music student at Hollins College where he served as chairman of the music department for over 20 years. Writing for voice, orchestra, chamber and a wide spectrum of unusual combinations of instruments, his catalog of works numbers over 250 with more than 80 being published. In 1978 I commissioned him to write something for me that would complement my performing repertoire. He completed the Twelve Sonatinas in 1980 and I have performed them in various concerts since 1981.




Hearing performances of the Twelve Sonatinas, audiences and critics have been enthusiastic over these mercurial and allusive studies in concision. Brilliantly authoritative, they show a sure grasp of colorful and evocative keyboard sonorities. Their pared-to-the-bone economies consistently further the composer's expressive intention by making them a felicitous marriage of form and content.




Although the cycle is designed as a continuity, the performer is encouraged to make selections in any satisfying order from the set, much as one might choose a group of Chopin preludes for a recital entry. Diercks writes of the sonatinas:




Each possesses a form unique to itself. The texture and styling were suggested by the nature of the instrument itself as well as models of earlier sonatinas and genre pieces. The entire cycle is based on various symmetrical melodic patterns and sonorities from which the tonic of each piece evolves. Somewhat buried in several are reminiscences of hymns and pop tunes: "Jesus Calls Us" (In E-flat), "My Funny Valentine" (fugal subject for In F-sharp and fleetingly in others), Zez Confrey novelty rags (In D). The sonatina In B utilizes out-spokenly a number of themes from the later works of Skryabin, this in recognition of Marthanne's special affinity for his music.




Crystal Stairs (1983)




JOSEPH FENNIMORE (Born New York City, 16 April 1940)




Joseph Fennimore attended the Eastman and Juilliard Schools receiving awards and a degree from each. Winning two international piano competitions brought tours of the USA, the Orient and concerts in Europe. The composer of two one-act operas, numerous orchestral, chamber and vocal workssome of which have been published, recorded and broadcast worldwidehis music has been performed in concerts under the batons of James Levine and the late Howard Hanson among others, and at music festivals including Ravinia, Tanglewood, Caramoor and the Almeida Festival in London.




When I commissioned a solo piece from Joseph Fennimore in 1982, I didn't know him very well, but I loved his music and admired his piano-playing. There is no better recipe for a warm friendship and collaboration, which is exactly what ensued. A decade later I realize that playing Fennimore's music was the beginning of my non-degree education.




The title, Crystal Stairs, comes from a recurring line in a speech given in 1851 by Sojourner Truth, the first black delegate to what became the National Organization of Women. Several times during her famous speech Truth exclaimed, "And life for me ain't been no crystal stair." The composer came across this phrase that Langston Hughes borrowed in his famous poem, "Mother to Son." Fennimore writes:




Adding an s, I found "Crystal Stairs" conjured up for me the image I was after of the never-never land of the 1930s Hollywood movie musical with its sybaritic luxury and glitter. Supporting these fantastical pleasures like a dark current are the arduous lives of the masses who flocked to them. Barely concealed are the thinly-masked exertions of the hard-working people of the entertainment industry who created and made them possible. Dreams, like pearls, are born of grit, desire, and effort and, like anything beautiful, disguise their origin. Perhaps the disguise is the beauty.




The work is cast in two large sections played without pause. The first of these is a series of variations on the opening theme. A second theme is introduced in the second half of this first large section. The second large section is a combination development-recapitulation with extended coda in which the themes are reprised but always varied either by key, color or mood. Optional in the score is a valentine to me: two measures of tap dancing to be performed by the pianist. As far as I'm concerned, they are mandatory.




Morning in the Woods (1971)


A La Chinoise, Op. 42 (1918)




LEO ORNSTEIN (Born Kremenchug, Russia, 4 December 1892*)




Back in the '20s, Leo Ornstein was probably the most notorious trendsetter of them all. He had dazzled American and European audiences with his recitals playing premieres of music by Debussy, Skryabin, Schoenberg, Albéniz, Scott, Casella and Ravel, as well as his own compositions. It was the latter which caused critics to dub him "the only true-blue genuine Futurist composer alive."




Wearying of the constant travel, hoop-la and practice, he retired from the concert stage, taught until the 1950s and since then has devoted his time to composing. Because he dropped out of the music whirl and never pushed his music, little was heard of him until he was rediscovered in the 1970s when America celebrated the '76 bicentennial.




Morning in the Woods, written in 1971, seems a contradiction of all that has been written about Ornstein. In this gentle piece, one long, loving melody line spins out from beginning to end, distilling the sights and sounds the composer enjoyed in his New Hampshire retreat deep in the woods. It has proved to be an audience favorite as a "breather" from some of his wilder music.




A la Chinoise, from 1918, was inspired by the young composer's first visit to San Francisco's Chinatown. A novelty piece, it holds up better than most "Chinese-inspired" piano music written about the same time. Ornstein played this work in public on many occasions and later made an orchestral arrangement for Leopold Stokowski.




Poems (1912)




CYRIL SCOTT (Born Oxton, Chesire, 27 September 1879; died Eastbourne, 31 December 1970*)




The English composer and writer belonged to that special world of eccentric artists who, in the early part of this century, had no fear of being called "dilettante," for their abilities matched their wide-ranging interests. Scott achieved early fame as the composer of salon piano pieces (Lotusland particularly), but he also wrote numerous books and articles on homeopathy, diet, free love, the occult arts and other unconventional practices.




The five Poems (Poppies, The Garden of Soul-Sympathy, Bells, The Twilight of the Year, Paradise-Birds) employ Scott's favorite devices of irregular rhythms and parallel chords in a scheme that constantly shifts to vary the melodic line. Each piece is a setting of Scott's own perfumed purple poetry, for which he had gained a considerable reputation. The inner spirit of this art-nouveau music is admirably captured in the penultimate verse of "Paradise-Birds:"




Not sad, not gay, not passionless nor tender,




But a recall of deep-felt moments gone,




A something human symbols cannot ever render,




A mingling of all faded joys in one.




Marthanne Verbit




Marthanne Verbit




Born in Atlanta and raised in the small town of Fitzgerald, Georgia, Marthanne Verbit spent her childhood either at a piano or in toe shoes, with frequent appearances on television, music festivals and in theatrical productions in Florida, North Carolina and Georgia. She left the deep South to attend Hollins College and Boston University School for the Arts, receiving music degrees from each. Further studies at the Eastman and Juilliard Schools and Columbia University kept her in the North.




Widely acclaimed for her flair, poetic fantasy, insightful musicianship and unforgettable stage presence, Marthanne Verbit's piano recitals throughout the United States and Europe have established her as a favorite among piano connoisseurs. Her versatility as both a musician and actress in the one-woman musical plays Piano Theatre and Keeping Time, written by Joseph Fennimore, have brought her to the attention of a broader audience.






*Piano sonatas and other short pieces of Leo Ornstein and Cyril Scott played by Marthanne Verbit are available on another Albany Records release Past Futurists (TROY070).








Gershwin: New York Music Corp., New York, New York; Antheil: Antheil Press, 7722 Lynn Ave., El Cerrito, California 94530; Diercks: CSMP, Inc., 250 Ohua Ave. #10E, Honolulu, Hawaii 96815; Fennimore: CVR, PO Box 20263, New York, New York 10023; Ornstein: Poon Hill Press, 2200 Bear Gulch Road, Woodside, California 94062; Scott: Schott (original publisher for Poems); other music available from G. Schirmer, New York, and Elkin, London




Engineer: Tom Lazarus (tracks 1-12); Robert Commagère (tracks 13-19)




Remastered for compact disc by Tom Lazarus




Cover Design: Kathleen McMillan






Valentines • Marthanne Verbit, piano




George Gershwin


I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise (1922) (:37)


Oh, Lady Be Good (1924) (1:29)


Swanee (1919) (:43)




George Antheil


Valentine Waltzes (1949)


No. 1 (2:01)


No. II (1:36)


No. III (1:19)


No. IX (1:05)


Time = 6:01




John Diercks


Twelve Sonatinas for Piano (1980)


In E-flat, In D, In E (5:10)


In C-sharp, In F, In C (6:35)


In F-sharp, In B, In G (7:06)


In B-flat, In A-flat, In A (5:26)


Time = 24:17




Joseph Fennimore


Crystal Stairs (1983) (11:02)




Leo Ornstein


Morning in the Woods (1971) (6:33)


A la Chinoise, Op. 39 (1918) (4:50)




Cyril Scott


Five Poems (1912)


Poppies (2:36)


The Garden of Soul-Sympathy (2:56)


Bells (3:08)


The Twilight of the Year (3:13)


Paradise Birds (3:31)


Time = 15:24




Total Time =72:11