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.'
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.
Copyright © Gordon Rumson, December
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