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 WAC Newsletter, June 1998
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Leo Ornstein

by 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:

  1. Life's Turmoil and a Few Bits of Satire
  2. A Trip to the Attic--A Tear or Two for a Childhood Forever Gone
    A. The Bugler
    B. Lament for a Lost Toy
    C. A Half Mutilated Cradle--Berceuse
    D. First Carousel Ride and Sounds of a Hurdy Gurdy
  3. Disciplines and Improvisations
The inner movements are naive and unpretentious, while the outer movements are powerful and brusque. Pauline Ornstein, writing about her husband's music and attempting to explain the Janus faces, differentiated 'a-tonal' and 'multi-tonal' works. "Both are discordant, which is an easily recognized feature, but the difference lies in a far subtler area. The internal pressures and conflicts of many co-existing keys provide movement[,] variety and contrast as opposed to the relative sterility and inertia of one all-embracing chromatic tonality. The sameness of this can easily become monotonous."

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 List

This 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

  • Nocturne (?)
  • At Twilight (1911)
  • Piano Pieces (1913)
  • Wild Men's Dance (Danse Sauvage) (ca 1913)
  • Nocturne No. II (?)
  • Three Moods (ca 1914)
  • Cossack Impressions (ca 1914)
  • Impressions of Notre Dame (ca 1914)
  • Pygmy Suite (1914)
  • Three Preludes (ca 1914)
  • Suite Russe (1914)
  • Suicide in an Airplane (?)
  • Dwarf Suite (1915)
  • Nine Miniatures (1915)
  • Poems of 1917 (1917)
  • Barcarolle (?)
  • A la Chinoise (pre 1918)
  • An Allegory (pre 1918)
  • Moment Musical (after Schubert) (1918)
  • Serenade (1918)
  • Scherzino (1918)
  • Sonata No. 4 (1918)
  • A la Mexicana (pre 1919)
  • Impressions of the Thames (1920)
  • Six Water Colors (1921)
  • Nine Arabesques (1921)
  • Nocturne No. I (ca 1922)
  • In the Country (1924)
  • Prelude Tragique (1924)
  • Two Lyric Pieces (1924)
  • Musings of a Piano (1924)
  • Memories from Childhood (1925)
  • Piano Sketch Books (1939)
  • Bagatelle (1952)
  • Four Impromptus (ca. 1952?-1976)
  • Seventeen Waltzes (1958-1980?)
  • Sixteen Metaphors (1959-1978?)
  • Tarantelle Diabolique (1960)
  • Three Fantasy Pieces (1960-1961?)
  • Four Legends (1960-1982)
  • To A Grecian Urn (?)
  • Tarantelle (ca 1963?)
  • A Long Remembered Sorrow (1964)
  • Four Intermezzos (1965-1968)
  • Mindy's Piece (1967)
  • Evening's Sorrow (1968)
  • Some New York Scenes (1971)
  • A Morning in the Woods (1971)
  • Sonata No. 5 (Biography) (1974)
  • Burlesca (A Satire) (1976)
  • Ballade (1976)
  • Valse Diabolique (1977)
  • Nine Vignettes (1977)
  • A Dream Almost Forgotten (1977)
  • Three Tales (1977)
  • Just a Fun Piece (1978)
  • A Small Carnival (1978)
  • Solitude (1978)
  • The Recruit and the Bugler (1978)
  • An Autumnal Fantasy (1978)
  • An Autumn Improvisation (1978)
  • Barbaro: A Pantomime (1978)
  • A Reverie (1979)
  • A Chromatic Dance (1978)
  • Sonata No. 6 (1981)
  • The Deserted Garden (1982)
  • A Moment of Retrospect (?)
  • Journal (1987-1988)
  • Sonata No. 7 (1988)
  • Sonata No. 8 (1990)

Four-Hand Piano Works

  • Piece Pour Piano (1913)
  • Two Improvisations (1921)
  • Seeing Russia with Teacher (1925)
  • Piano Concerto-2 Piano version (?)

Chamber Works

  • Violin Sonata, Op. 31 (1914-5?)
  • String Quartet No. 1 (early)
  • 'Cello Sonata No. 1 (1918)
  • 'Cello Sonata No. 2 (ca 1920)
  • Piano Quintet (1927)
  • Hebraic Fantasy for Violin and Piano (1929)
  • String Quartet No. 2 (1930?)
  • Six Preludes for 'Cello and Piano (193?)
  • Prelude and Minuet [in] Antique Style (Flute and Clarinet) (1946?)
  • Nocturne for Clarinet and Piano (1952)
  • Prelude for Flute and Piano (195?)
  • Ballade for Saxophone and Piano (1955?)
  • Viola Fantasy No. 2 (1972)
  • String Quartet No. 3 (1976)
  • Intermezzo for Flute and Piano (pre 1978)
  • Poem for Flute and Piano (1979?)
  • Viola Fantasy No. 1 (197?)
  • Ballade for B-flat Clarinet (?)
  • Waltz for Violin and Piano (?)
  • Comp. 36 for 'Cello and Piano (?)
  • Untitled Piece for 'Cello and Piano Op. 33 No 1 and 2 (?)

Vocal Works

  • Cradle Song (1915)
  • The Corpse (1918)
  • Five Songs for Soprano and Piano (1927-28)
  • Four Songs without Words (1928)
  • America (pre 1930)
  • Lullaby (?)
  • Mother o' Mine (?)
  • Tartar Lament (?)
  • There Was a Jolly Miller Once (?)
  • Three Russian Choruses (?).

Orchestral Works

  • Five Songs for Voice and Orchestra (after 1928)
  • Piano Concerto (192?)
  • Incidental Music for Lysistrata (193?)
  • Lysistrata Suite (193?)
  • Nocturne (1936)
  • Dance of the Fates (1936)

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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Last updated 8 June 1998. Contact information.