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Introduction to Leo Ornstein
(see here for scores and more information)

Russian born composer and pianist Leo Ornstein (1893-2002) was recognized as a piano prodigy at an early age. He studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory under Alexander Glazounov but in 1906 was forced to flee with his family to America where he studied at what would one day become the Juilliard School. He started giving concerts in 1911 and within a few years achieved notoriety, not only as a gifted pianist performing works of Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, Schoenberg, and Bartok for the first time in the U.S., but also through performances of his own radical "futurist" compositions which created a furor. A biography and analysis of his work was written by Frederick H. Martens when Ornstein was still in his twenties.

He was internationally known as a virtuoso pianist, and as a composer he was ranked with Stravinsky and Schoenberg. In the mid1920s, however, at the height of a successful concert career, he abruptly ceased performing. A few years later, together with his wife Pauline Mallet-Prevost, he formed a music school in Philadelphia where he taught until retiring in the mid 1950s. After that he devoted his time entirely to composing. His final work, an 8th Piano Sonata, was composed in 1990 when he was in his late 90s, making him perhaps the oldest active composer.

Henry Brant and Michael Tilson ThomasAlthough best known for a collection of radical early works, throughout his life he wrote in diverse styles. Such stylistic eclecticism confounded his listeners which, in turn, may explain why he chose to retire from the concert stage in order to follow his muse away from public pressure and scrutiny.

Having thus shunned the music world it is not surprising that the music world quickly began to ignore him, and as time passed most people forgot about him altogether. Then in the 1970s, along with a revival of interest in American music of the early part of the century, he was "rediscovered" and since then a dozen or more records have been produced and many more works have been published. In 1975 he received the Marjorie Peabody Waite Award from the National Academy of Arts and Letters and The National Institute of Arts and Letters. His music continues to be performed and recorded both in the U.S. and abroad, and a biography is currently being written by Michael Broyles and Denise Von Glahn. His manuscripts are held at the Yale Music Library; much of his music has been edited and published by his son under the Poon Hill Press imprimatur.

These scores and further information about Ornstein and his work are available here.

 


Ornstein's signature from Martens biography
Copy of book from collection of Charles Amirkhanian

See a video of Sarah Cahill performing Ornstein's Morning in the Woods from Other Minds Festival 8 here.

 

Ornstein is survived by his daughter Edith Valentine of De Pere, Wisconsin, his son, Severo Ornstein of Woodside, California, five grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
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For further information:
Severo M. Ornstein
Poon Hills
2200 Bear Gulch Road
Woodside, CA 94062
Tel: 650-851-4258
Fax: 650-851-9549
From Preface to Leo Ornstein—the Man—His Ideas—His Work
by Frederick H. Martens (published by Breitkopf & Hartel, Inc., New York)


to many represents an evil musical genius wandering without the utmost pale of tonal orthodoxy, in a weird No-Man's Land haunted with tortuous sound, with wails of futuristic despair, with cubist shrieks and post-impressionistic cries and crashes. He is the great anarch, the iconoclast, the destructive genius who would root out what little remains of the law and the prophets since Scriabin, Stravinsky and Schonberg have trampled them underfoot. His earlier compositions which, with happy fancy and considerable skill, exploit the possibilities of the diatonic system he has since abandoned, are regarded much as would be the Sunday-school certificates of an apostate to Satanism, the lisped prayers of one who has forgotten them to celebrate a Devil's mass. His gospel is black heresy, his dispensation a delusion and a snare! It is thus that the more rigid upholders of tradition, those who scorn taking the pains to master the idiom which serves to express his ideas, see him.