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Ornstein, Leo (1893-2002)

Leo Ornstein

born: 2 December 1893
died: 24 February 2002
country: Ukraine

In 1913 Leo Ornstein was on the verge of launching a major career as a concert pianist. Born in the Ukraine, he had been admitted to the St Petersburg Conservatory at the age of ten, but his family had been forced to flee Russia in 1906 because of anti-Semitic pogroms. Arriving in New York he won a scholarship to the newly formed Institute of Musical Art, later to become Juilliard, and was carefully groomed for his place on the concert stage.

Then something snapped. Ornstein began hearing strange dissonant sounds in his head followed by complete pieces. Later he recalled one of his early compositions: ‘Danse sauvage was written by a young person with no experience whatever with modern music. I still wonder at the age of eighty, why should I have thought of that? A boy that had been sitting at the piano practising [Liszt’s] Twelfth Rhapsody to try to astonish the ladies with the speed and accuracy of the passages, and blind the audience with the terrific glissandos and what not. Why suddenly that thing came into my head—I’ll be blessed if I know. And as a matter of fact, I really doubted my sanity at first. I simply said, what is that? It was so completely removed from any experience I had ever.’ Ornstein may not have been as unfamiliar with modern music as he suggested, but his epiphanic experience is borne out by other sources.

More ultra-modern pieces followed and Ornstein became a sensation, the enfant terrible of modern music. He regularly performed to sold-out audiences, who were amused, angered, bewildered, yet often moved by what they heard. Critics raved: Waldo Frank prophesized that, of Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Ornstein, ‘Ornstein, the youngest of these, gives promise to be the greatest’; Charles Buchanan called him ‘the most salient musical phenomenon of our time’; and an anonymous critic for the London Observer dubbed Ornstein ‘the sum of Schoenberg and Scriabin squared’.

Yet by the early 1920s Ornstein’s life and his music had changed dramatically. He abandoned both his concert career and his highly dissonant ultra-modern style. The reasons for the first of these are not clear, and the musical world was shocked by his sudden disappearance. Ornstein himself explained the second development. In 1915 he composed his second violin sonata, his most atonal, dissonant and uncompromising piece, and it frightened him: ‘I would say that Op 31 had brought music just to the very edge … I just simply drew back and said, “beyond that lies complete chaos”.’ More cryptically he observed: ‘After I have lain down on the piano keyboard and sounded all the notes at once—what then?’

Just as other composers were discovering ultramodernism, Ornstein pulled away from its rigours to allow a more expressive voice to surface. In doing so he found his natural métier, for Ornstein was at core a lyricist. His later music remains fully rooted in the harmony and dissonance of the twentieth century, but his melodies have a lyrical, poetic quality that forms a foil to the harmonic complexities surrounding them.

from notes by Michael Broyles © 2015


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