With this significant centenary year well under way, while, across the Atlantic, the comprehensive exhibition devoted to that milestone in the history of modern art in the United States, the 1913 Armory show, may still be seen until the end of the month at the New-York Historical Society – a visit highly to be recommended to anyone in the vicinity – this evening seems like an opportune moment to devote some attention to the breakthroughs in the adjacent field of music that took place at the same moment, and in particular to the work of the eminent bad boy of those years, the pianist and composer Leo Ornstein. (Accordingly, my usual Sunday round-up will be on hiatus this week.)
Although a degree of uncertainty persists as regards the precise dates of several bits of his biographical data, it seems most likely that he was born in December 1892, in the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk. His family tended towards music; his father, Abram Gornstein, was a cantor, while an uncle made a living as a violinist. Early on he distinguished himself on the piano, and was sent to the St. Petersburg Conservatory to study. In view of the pogroms set in motion after the first Russian revolution, however, the family decided to leave the Czarist empire behind and emigrated to the United States, arriving in New York in 1906 (having surrendered the G of its former surname to the authorities at Ellis Island), where Leo Ornstein continued his musical studies, making his debut as a pianist in 1911 and his first recordings two years later. Soon he had been recognized for his skill and was invited to perform in London as well, at a series of concerts in March of 1914 in which he played works by Busoni and Schönberg along with several pieces of his own, even more challenging in their newness: the presentation of “Futurist music,” as it was then termed, was well-timed to attract the musical public’s attention. Marked by the explosions of his experimental tone clusters and equipped with titles such as “Suicide in an Airplane” and “Wild Men’s Dance (Danse sauvage),” these works were slaps in the face of public taste, and it is not surprising that the performances should nearly have engendered full riots in response.
Yet positive recognition also came quickly. During the very active career upon which he embarked over the next several years, Ornstein was soon regarded as one of the premier pianists in the United States.
The circumstances of those years may have played a certain part in this great success, for meanwhile, the World War had arrived and some of his innovations in their sonic vehemence or violence – in compositions whose very strangeness had it seems surprised the composer when he first heard them gestating in his own mind – could be taken as somehow having heralded the never before heard-of realities on the battlefields. Something of this newly patent relationship might have been intuited, at the midpoint of the hostilities, when an early magazine critic insisted that by Ornstein’s works “theories of music as they were taught us ten or a dozen years ago are frankly smashed into smithereens.” (Charles L. Buchanan, “Ornstein and Futurist Music” (Vanity Fair, vol. 5, no. 6 (February 1916), p. 48.)
For several more years, into the 1920s, Ornstein’s music was celebrated as the most avant-garde, esteemed as being quite on a level with Schönberg’s, but even in response to his own Violin Sonata of 1915 he had begun to consider the idea that he had reached (or even already crossed) an experimental limit beyond which it would be senseless for him to go. And so he began to withdraw from the public eye, first moving to Philadelphia and establishing a music school there (amongst whose alumni was John Coltrane), later retiring and relocating into a nearly complete anonymity. All the while, however, he continued to compose works of music, with the help of his wife Pauline, who would transcribe as he would play, having previously heard them already more or less fully-formed in his mind. To be sure, a few of these pieces were performed in public, especially during the earlier decades, but many were not. And Leo Ornstein at least was genuinely content with this state of things.
All the same, during the 1970s his works were rediscovered by the historian Vivian Perlis (the founder of the Oral History of American Music project at the Yale University Library), who subsequently helped to interest contemporary musicians in performing them. Recordings began to be made of pieces from every decade of his by then already long career. And still Ornstein continued to compose new work, even after his wife’s death in 1985. His two final Piano Sonatas date from the end of that decade, when he was already nearly a hundred years old. He passed away in 2002, not quite a supercentenarian.
Perlis has made available a long interview she conducted with Leo and Pauline Ornstein in 1977, appending to it some recollections of the man.
Their son, Severo Ornstein, in addition to publishing the scores himself – as he recounts elsewhere, he has had his troubles with other publishing firms – has also set up a website with a number of biographical statements as well as a catalog of musical works and a set of recordings. (On Youtube, too, he has a channel where some recordings of his father’s music have been uploaded.)
Michael Broyles and Denise von Glahn’s biography of Ornstein was published a few years ago by Indiana University Press, while in a somewhat older issue of the Wisconsin Alliance for Composers Newsletter (June 1998), there is a useful short article about him, complete with lists of his works, by Gordon Rumson.
Late last year, Ornstein’s “Quintette for Piano and Strings” was performed in Philadelphia by Marc-André Hamelin, who has been a major force in the gradual revival of his works, along with the Pacifica Quartet, and the upcoming release of their recording of the 1927 work has been announced.
Drawing on the recordings provided on the website dedicated to him, I’ve put together an audio playlist of several works from different periods played by various musicians, amongst them Hamelin, Niek de Vente, and William Westney, to name a few. Although, as Severo Ornstein notes, the recording quality can vary, in all the performances – some by Severo himself, while one is even by Leo – the striking vivacity of this music speaks through.