Leo Ornsteinby Gordon Rumson
In 1892 a child was born in Russia who quickly showed signs of great musical ability and by the age of 22 was astounding European and American audiences, critics and musicians with his compositions and pianism. In 1998 Leo Ornstein lives quietly in Wisconsin. His self-imposed retirement from the mainstream of musical life resulted in his obscurity, yet for a time his creativity was hailed in the same category as Schoenberg's and Stravinsky's. Until the early 1990s he continued to compose and with performances, recordings and publications his legacy to American music is finally being recognized.
Though Ornstein studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Russian pogroms against the Jewish people drove his family to America. There he had the good fortune to study music with Bertha Fiering Tapper, who, in giving the young Leo a conservative and thorough training, had no inkling of the ideas that were gestating in his brain. Suddenly in 1912 or so, Ornstein's compositions took a frenzied turn and the result caused even him to doubt his own sanity. The music was so extreme, so wild that Tapper at first also doubted, but repeated hearings convinced her that Ornstein knew exactly what he was doing. Ornstein traveled through Europe and performed widely. He met many famous musicians, though he had virtually no contact with the then modern music. Audiences were amazed and some critics were sure that it was a joke. However, the perceptive James Huneker wrote: "I never thought I should live to hear Arnold Schoenberg sound tame; yet tame he sounds--almost timid and halting--after Ornstein who is, most emphatically the only true-blue, genuine, Futurist composer alive." Ornstein's works included such pieces for piano as Danse Sauvage (1915 or earlier), Poems of 1917, Three Preludes (1914), Two Impressions of Notre Dame (1914) and Suicide in an Airplane. In these and other compositions (and he was incredibly productive) Ornstein escaped tonality, overwhelmed the piano and strained the fabric of rhythm to its breaking point.
Between 1914 and 1922 Ornstein stood at the forefront of the avant-garde and each new work was hailed as a further development in the freeing of music. But Ornstein soon tired of the mere faddish needs of his followers and insisted on responding to his own inner creativity. He stated: "Yes, I would say that opus 31 [the Sonata for Violin and Piano of 1914] had brought music just to the very edge, and as I said, I have no suicidal tendencies at all. I simply drew back and said, 'beyond that lies complete chaos.' "
The result is that in a number of works he created music of lush romantic sensuousness. Some critics believed that it was a loss of inspiration. But the contrast of extremes--simplicity with the violent--remained in his music. For example, the Eighth Piano Sonata (1990) shifts between styles having the following titles for the movements:
Leo Ornstein's method of composing was also unusual. He heard the work complete in his mind. All that was required was its performance, or notation. There could even be a long gap between the original inspiration and the copying down of the music for Ornstein trusted his memory completely. However, he didn't care for the process and it fell to his wife to act as musical stenographer as he performed the work. But, when she finally insisted that they notate the first three Piano Sonatas, it was too late--Ornstein could not recall them.
He retired from teaching in 1953, but he had to wait until the 1970s for recognition with the Marjorie Peabody Waite Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1975. However, now, as the composer passes into his 106th year his achievement is earning its place in American music. Though Ornstein chose to retire from the public arena, he retained his artistic integrity, and like Conlon Nancarrow, Harry Partch and Gunnar Johansen, left a sterling gift to American music.
Works ListThis list follows the S numbers of Severo Ornstein who has edited the works for publication. As such it is derived from the published catalogue and is used here with permission. It is, for the most part, chronological within genres. It is not complete as the scores to a number of works mentioned in the literature have not been located. These works are not marked here.
Solo Piano Works
Four-Hand Piano Works
Leo Ornstein's works are available from Poon Hill Press, 2200 Bear Gulch Road, Woodside, CA 94062. The author wishes to thank Severo Ornstein for his assistance and encouragement. The Canadian pianist and composer, Gordon Rumson, is Founder and Proprietor of Sikesdi Press, Music Publishers of the "New and Little Known."
WAC Newsletter, June 1998
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