The ten brief Poems of 1917
, Ornstein’s Op 41, are dedicated to an outstanding pianist-composer, Leopold Godowsky. The original publication is prefaced by a text created expressly for the music by the American poet and social reformer Waldo Frank (1889–1967). ‘The men and women were angry together, and rended one another’, Frank wrote; ‘I stood high upon the agony of the living and looked upon men, upon the pity of men who had love and who cast love away. […] So all the years of my life shall be years of my sorrow.’ Mostly in an ABA design, the Poems of 1917
inhabit a variety of moods. No 1, ‘No Man’s Land’ (Andante espressivo), is bleakly elegiac and the relentless tourbillions of No 2, ‘The Sower of Despair’, belie its Moderato marking. No 3, ‘The Orient in Flanders’ (Andantino), retains a hint of the chinoiserie of Op 39, in stark contrast with the anguish of No 4, ‘The Wrath of the Despoiled’, Sostenuto (molto appassionato), which opens out to six staves to accommodate the chordal expanses of its closing bars. No 5, ‘Night Brooding over the Battlefield’ (Moderato e misterioso), suggests another parallel for Ornstein’s music—that of Leoš Janá„ek—though whether Ornstein knew any of Janá„ek’s music at this point is not known. No 6, ‘A Dirge of the Trenches’ (Lento), returns to the troubled tranquillity of No 1, its appassionato middle section revealing the torment that lies behind it. The apparent inevitability of the falling patterns in No 7, ‘Song behind the Lines’ (Andante con moto e malinconioso), may suggest the bleak futility of war despite the title; and there’s no relief in the poco più mosso middle section. The eighth of the Poems
, ‘The Battle’, marked Allegro e molto appassionato, is the most extensive of them, generating an unremitting volley of chromatic chords, which No 9, ‘Army at Prayer’ (Allegro, ma non troppo), initially seems to relieve, until recurrent patterns of triplets take over the texture. Finally, the bitter ‘Dance of the Dead’, No 10, Vivo (con fuoco), brings an acidic conclusion to these disquieting miniatures.
from notes by Martin Anderson © 2002