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A composer across the century


GORDON RUMSON writes about Leo Ornstein,
a composer about to celebrate his 105(?)th birthday


Depending on what source you consult the pianist and composer Leo Ornstein was born on December 11, 1895, or December 2, 1892, or December 11, 1892, or just 1895 or December 12, 1892. For a while it looked as if December 11, 1892 was correct, but now it might be 1894.

Regardless of his birth date sometime in December in the 1890s what is significant is that Leo Ornstein is still alive and living quietly in Wisconsin. For a time in the teens of the century he was accounted one of the best pianists of his day, and one of the most avant-garde composers. One critic compared him with Schoenberg and found the German master tame in comparison.

But by 1930 Ornstein was all but forgotten and while he continued to compose into the 1990s it is as if Leo Ornstein had disappeared off the face of the earth. The American composer and critic Virgil Thomson dismissed him with a snide comment: 'As modernism of yesteryear, [Ornstein's] Danse Sauvage of 1915...can still be listened to.'

What happened?

Born in Russia Leo Ornstein was quickly recognized as a prodigy and attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Unfortunately his family was driven from Russia by the pogroms of 1907 and they ended up in New York City. There the young man was taken under the wing of an evidently wise and informed teacher Bertha Fiering Tapper, who taught him very well though in a conventional manner. Leo seemed destined for a career as a virtuoso pianist.

Sometime between 1910 and 1913 Leo Ornstein's creative world was shaken and he began composing music of the wildest sort. Piling dissonance upon dissonance and making use of strikingly barbaric and complex rhythms Ornstein's music stunned its hearers. Some thought it was a joke. But others understood and he was soon championed by critics such as Calvocoressi and Downes. He earned the respect, if not endorsement, of musicians such as Theodore Leschetitzky and Ferruccio Busoni.

Ornstein's fame grew and he performed widely. His works were performed by major orchestras and Ornstein's success was imitated by other musicians, chiefly George Antheil who wrote his Sonata Sauvage in the 1920s and took up playing the piano in Ornstein style.

Ornstein composed copiously in these early years, the works flowing out of him like a torrent. However, something was wrong, soon Ornstein was not cutting-edge anymore. Not just that he was outrun by the latest fad, or the latest primitif, Ornstein himself began turning away from the 'merely' avant-garde. Some of his works returned to conventionality, though one supporter had to admit that Ornstein had always been Janus face -- composing both advanced and more romantic music side by side.

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Copyright © Gordon Rumson, December 11th 1999


You can purchase CDs of and hear extracts from Leo Ornstein's Piano Quartet and String Quintet No 3, the Sonata for Cello and Piano Op 52 and the Violin Sonata Op 31 at


Further reading:
Leo Ornstein : The Man, His Ideas, & His Work
(Modern Jewish Experience Series) by Frederick H. Martens,
Ayer Co, June 1975, ISBN 0405067321



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