Composer / Pianist  Leo  Ornstein

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Leo Ornstein, 108, Pianist And Avant-Garde Composer

Published: March 5, 2002 in The New York Times  [Text only; photo from another source]

Leo Ornstein, a Russian-born composer and pianist who in the early 20th century was a leading figure of the American avant-garde, died on Feb. 24 in Green Bay, Wis. He was either 108 or 109.

ornsteinViewed as a radical composer, Mr. Ornstein was ranked with Stravinsky and Schoenberg in the 1920's and with Varèse and Antheil in the 1940's, first as an innovator and ultimately as a maverick. His early works made use of tone clusters, polyrhythms and other new techniques before they were widely known.

Audiences, predictably, were divided between horror and adulation. In 1918 the critic James Huneker called him ''the only true-blue, genuine Futurist composer alive.'' At the same time, The London Observer described the ''insufferable hideousness'' of his ''so-called music.''

Mr. Ornstein first came to fame as a piano virtuoso, performing his own works along with more conventional fare to packed houses. In 1918 when he was in his 20's, The New York Times described an audience for a matinee at Aeolian Hall clinging ''to walls, to organ pipes, pedal-base, stairs or any niche offering a view.'' The same year a biography was published, ''Leo Ornstein: The Man, His Ideas, His Work'' by Frederick H. Martens. It described the pianist, among other things, as ''an evil musical genius, wandering in a weird No-Man's Land haunted with tortuous sound.''

But in 1933 Mr. Ornstein, who disliked performing, retired from the stage, and after the St. Louis Symphony gave the world premiere of his ''Nocturne and Dance of Fate'' in 1937 he vanished into near-obscurity. ''What of Leo Ornstein, bright particular star of American composition a quarter of a century ago?'' wrote Olin Downes in The New York Times in 1945. ''We recently asked three of the composers of the rising generation about him. Two of them did not know his name. Twenty-five years ago his name was on the lips of every informed concertgoer.''

Mr. Ornstein, evidently unperturbed, kept on composing. In the 1970's there was a revival of interest in his work, and he was living in a mobile home in Texas, happily composing.

His final work, the Eighth Piano Sonata, was composed in 1990, when he was in his late 90's.

Leo Ornstein was born in December of either 1892 or 1893, said his son, Severo. The son of a cantor, he began studying piano at 3, and before he was 10 he had entered the conservatory of St. Petersburg, where he studied with Glazunov.

In 1907 his family fled the growing anti-Semitism in pre-revolutionary Russia and settled in New York, where he studied at the Institute for Musical Arts (now the Juilliard School) and made his debut in 1911.

On Dec. 11, 1918, he married Pauline C. Mallet-Prevost, who also studied at the institute. The unusual union between an immigrant from the Lower East Side and a Park Avenue debutante lasted for 67 years, until her death in 1985.

In 1935 after his retirement from the stage, the Ornsteins founded the Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia, which they ran successfully until it was sold in 1958.

In addition to his son, of Woodside, Calif., he is survived by his daughter, Edith Valentine, of De Pere, Wis., five grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

On March 26 Marc-André Hamelin, who has recorded Mr. Ornstein's work, will perform several Ornstein pieces at the Miller Theater. The event has been designated a memorial to the composer.

''Fame never had much meaning or appeal to me,'' Mr. Ornstein told Harold C. Schonberg of The Times in 1976. ''It was not worth it. If my music has any value, it will be picked up and played. If it has no value, it deserves its neglect.''

It was a rare privilege that Leo Ornstein permitted me to call him at his home in July of 1987.  Twice he mentioned being 94 years old, so that might give credence to the possibility that his birth-year was 1892, since it is certain he was born in December.  Whether it was 1892 or 1893, he still is either the third or fourth oldest of my 1600+ interview guests!  [Soprano Dame Eva Turner has the distinction(?) of being born first, in March of 1892!  See my Interview with Dame Eva Turner.] 

Ornstein and I spoke for about a half hour, and he gave me his attention and his thoughts until he simply grew tired and politely asked that we stop. 

Being a radio-guy, I first made sure to ascertain how he pronounced his name, and it is ORN-STINE. 

Here is that special conversation . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You’re both composer, and pianist, and also a teacher?

Leo Ornstein:    Yes.  As a matter of fact my training began as a pianist, and most of my early efforts were entirely devoted to the piano.  When I began to concretize, suddenly I began to write and I kept the two careers moving simultaneously for quite a good many years.  Then it became very apparent that my piano playing was interfering with my writing, and it became also clear that my writing was more important to me than my playing.  After all, one is a reproductive art and the other is, to some extent, called creative art.

BD:    You wanted to be more of the creative artist?

LO:    Thinking up things is much more interesting than reproducing.  The analogy is between the author of a play and the actors.  The actors just stand there, immobilized in the wings waiting until the author tells them who they are, what they’re supposed to think and what they’re supposed to do.  Then they begin to get an identity.  More or less the same extent occurs in music.  You put the spots where they belong, or where you hear them, and then whatever instrument you’re writing for will follow the directions of what you've indicated.

BD:    Then how much interpretive latitude do you allow on the part of the players?

LO:    There is some leeway.  Obviously, our notation is, to some extent, not entirely clear.  Just keeping time doesn’t necessarily mean that you feel the piece.  Just as we converse, we increase our voices and slow it down and so on with the meaning of what we are saying.  The same thing occurs in music.  A performer has to sense that, because actually the notation is rather rigid and inflexible.  So we try to indicate by telling the performer where to increase the speed, or to slow it down, or to increase the volume, and so on.  But those are usually left to the discretion of a performer.

ornsteinBD:    You did a lot of performing of your own music.

LO:    Yes.  I used to play some of the things, and then as I abandoned playing in public and devoted more of my time to writing, I neglected my technical skills.  Playing an instrument has an awful amount of athletics involved, and I'm not particularly interested in that.  So in my case it was providential that I was able to think of some things to do on my own.

BD:    When you did play your own music, were you the ideal interpreter of those pieces?

LO:    I don’t know that I necessarily made the best performance of it, by any means.  I've heard things played by other people, sometimes less skillfully and sometimes very much more skillfully than I did.  Those two things don’t entirely coincide, because each one demands its own technical problems that you've got to solve.  In my case I had a problem with my hand, which is rather a tight-knit hand, and I had to spend inordinate hours to overcome the limitation of my own hand.  First of all, to play an instrument you've got to have the adaptable qualifications just physically speaking, just as in singing you have to have a voice first.  It doesn’t matter how musical you may be.  If you have an inferior voice, obviously it is more than a handicap in many ways.  It can actually be a disaster.

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the interpretations that you have heard of your music over the years?

LO:    Yes.  I’ve by no means heard all, and some of the interpretations that have been recorded have been quite, quite good, as a matter of fact.  On some I might have wished that the interpretation could have been a little bit different, but on the whole I am very much less critical about a performance than the average listener who pays so much attention to the performance.  I’m interested in what is being said, and while it’s very nice to have it said well, at the end I’d rather listen to a piece of music that says something, even if it’s not too well executed.  Sarah Bernhardt may have been a great, great actress, but I’ll be darned whether I want to listen to her reciting the time table of a railroad schedule, even if it’s done most emotionally and very graphically.

BD:    [Laughs]  Sure!  Were you a better composer because you were a first-rate performer?

LO:    I suppose to some extent it might have been of some help, but the origin of ideas is still a very unknown factor in aesthetics.  Whether you’re painting, or writing a novel or poetry, or writing music, the origin of ideas we can’t understand.  I haven’t the faintest idea why I hear some things.  Then you play with the burden of having to have judgment to decide whether it’s significant enough to get down on paper, or whether you have to modify it, or whether it’s absolutely worthless and trivial and not of any significance.  You have to have the judgment then to decide, and sometimes a composer may have rather poor judgment.  So that is a burden which every artist carries on his back, having to make these decisions.  Sometimes things come out so unmistakably, seemingly right to the composer that he just puts down the way it is, and sometimes you may have to modify.  And very often you throw away certain things that you think were either inferior, or they didn’t suit the situation where you happen to be at that time.

BD:    Is this perhaps what separates a great piece of music from a mediocre one?

LO:    Yes.  Their essential judgment is a very important factor, because some gifted people spoil their own music by injudicious putting down almost everything that comes into one’s head.  Unfortunately, not everything that comes into one’s head is necessarily very important, and that’s something that has to be left to the judgment of the composer.  He also may be very wrong in eliminating things.  My wife, who was the only person that I could tolerate when I work, told me again and again that I have discarded things that she thought were sometimes better than the ones that I actually left standing.  So you see right then and there you have differences of opinion as to what significance a situation has for a certain motive or a certain combination of chords that you chose to use.

BD:    Then whose opinion is right?  Is it the public?  Is it the composer?  Is it the performer?

LO:    In the end, I suppose that we have to say that the public has the say-so, and in the last analysis it may not be during your lifetime.  It may be long after you’re gone, but in the end it’s the public that has to make its decision.  I've always believed that very firmly, and it’s been proven again and again.  I don’t know whether you know the history of Brahms, but he had some person who hounded him all his life with criticism, and so on.  Now almost no one remembers the name of the person, and the public apparently, just little by little, simply began to listen to Brahms and began to enjoy it.  What we enjoy we don’t necessarily understand.  It’s not quite as simple as it all seems.  We don’t really know.  In fact, you do not know just what music does to us.  I’ve spent a whole lifetime and still do not know.  I’m a man of 94, and I've been writing probably since I was about twelve or thirteen years old, and I still do not quite understand what it is that we react to.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re writing are you in control of the music, or is the music in control of you?

ornsteinLO:    I must say that probably, on the whole, the music must be in control of me, because just as I referred a moment ago, since we do not understand about the origins of ideas, I have to assume that to some extent what I hear is really what controls me.  I don’t know how to make a safe kind of a statement.  I just sit there with a paper in front of me, and I might be able to purely exercise skill that I have just learned, and yet behind the rhetoric there's nothing very important being said, and so I can’t make it.  If something comes into my head, I have to decide whether that is an important statement.  Then I put it down, and I can only hope against hope that the listener will enjoy it, too.  I've been sort of caught between two different styles.  I've been tremendously sensationalized as a young man by writing what I suppose in those days probably appeared very, very eccentric, and very experimental music.

BD:    You were called a

LO:    Yes, if there’s such a thing.  In the Wild Man’s Dance and the Impressions of Notre Dame and particularly in the Three Moods, I tried to put down in sound, as really as one can or at least as nearly as I could, the real kind of feeling and sensation we have.  The three pieces are called Anger, Grief and Joy, and I try to incorporate the feelings that we have.  I suppose they’re all quite realistic, or as much as I could make them, or as much as music can imitate.  Music on the whole, though, is a fairly abstract art.  As a matter of fact, I imagine that of all the arts, it’s probably the most abstract, because in painting the painter has something in front of him.  The writer has the whole of life before him.  But the person writing music has nothing.  I suppose you feebly can try to imitate the sound of a bird, but those have been tried and they’ve been disasters almost every time, particularly if you try to be very exact about it.  It became just ludicrous.  So to that extent, music is still one of the most baffling of all the arts, and why we choose and like a particular sequence of notes and discard others, I have not yet been able to understand.

BD:    In your vast outlook, what do you feel is the ultimate purpose of music in society?

LO:    I don’t really know what it is.  I suppose that it enlarges our process of human expression.  That’s about as far or as near as I can understand.  It depends, of course, what you mean by
purpose.  I don’t know that we understand what the purpose of anything is, particularly.  I've lived 94 years and I'm still trying to understand what my life has meant.

BD:    Have you come to any tentative conclusions?

LO:    I’m afraid not.  I
m afraid its not quite as easy as all that.  I wish it were, but we cannot categorize about life at all.  We just wonder what it all is about.  I don’t even today understand why we are put on this earth, and after a certain number of years are just thrown off it.  I don’t understand what the purpose was at all.

BD:    Looking back over your 94 years, most of that time was spent with music.  What is the most surprising thing that you have noticed about the change in music over the years?

LO:    Probably the most interesting part has been that the composer, generally speaking, has liberated himself from many of the taboos that existed.  Today, one has to be very careful.  I myself, in my experiments, have had to pull back sometimes because I almost brought the things to the edge of a precipice.  I wrote a piece after reading William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  I wrote a sonata for violin and piano, and I looked back at it recently when it was reissued and I wrote a little introduction.  It said that I was young, and while I heard those things and I put down just what I heard, I have no way of evaluating it at all.  All I know is that when I finished it and finally looked at the thing, I was quite frightened that this thing had carried so far that, as I say, it almost was at the edge of a precipice, and I had to pull back.  I don’t know whether you know too much of my music, but there are some pieces that are extravagantly avant-garde, and others, on the contrary, that stay within somewhat prescribed areas.  Some pieces are very lurid, and others, on the contrary, touch you very deeply.  For instance, the Sonata for Cello and Piano and the Quintet for Strings and Piano are entirely different.  It’s music that just really touches the human heart.

BD:    I like to play a balance of my guest
s’ music on each program, showing all kinds of aspects.

LO:    Oh, yes.  That would balance it all together because they’re entirely different from the Biography Sonata, which is extremely experimental.  I think that many of your listeners would actually be puzzled by some of the other things.  But again, in turn, some of the recordings they would actually enjoy.  Stokowski told me that the Cello Sonata was probably the finest sonata written by any American composer.  It was on that basis when he heard that he became a fan of mine, and played a good many of my things.  Other pieces of mine come from a different world altogether, and I've never been able to quite fix in my own mind where they come from.  I have no theories about writing music.  I don’t know what kind of music one should write, and since I have to depend on what I hear, these are very extreme things, and at other times, on the contrary, they are things that are entirely concerned with just touching the human soul.

ornsteinBD:    Are they all different sides of your personality?

LO:    I don’t know.  Perhaps they are.  To what extent the artist reflects his personality, to what extent he really reflects a certain amount of gift that he may have, I don’t quite know.  I've been very much interested in trying to understand myself.  To what extent the kind of a human being that I am and the kind of a life I lead has really very much more to do with the music that I write, because the music that I write comes from somewhere beyond me.  I don’t know how I make that melodic line.  All I know is I can tell you I just heard that line.

BD:    You hear it in your head and you put it down on paper?

LO:    Yes.  I hear it and then I rush over to the paper as fast as I can, and hope against hope that I will remember what I hear.  My method of writing is somewhat different from some composers who write more or less from note to note.  I don’t.  I have to hear the thing in sizable blocks.

BD:    In a phrase?

LO:    Oh yes, much more than that... sometimes almost a whole page.  My memory, of course, now is the typical memory of an old person of 94, but I used to have a fairly decent memory.  In the days when I was playing and writing at the same time, there was a sonata that I imagined.  As I was thinking the thing, my memory was good enough to be able to remember what I was thinking, and so as I went on thinking and my memory remembered.  So I played the sonata in public dozens and dozens of times, but I never had a chance to put it down on paper.  I just remembered.  It could be like a person who thought of a poem, and instead of writing it down they would simply remember the lines as they came into their head.  That's really what happened.  Unfortunately, my publisher finally heard the piece and said to me that he’s got to publish it.  But by then I didn’t remember it.  At the time when I was playing it I was actually remembering it, and then I went to playing other things, and hadn’t played that sonata for years.  So of course, I forgot it.

BD:    That's too bad.

LO:    Yes, that’s a shame because it’s always been something of a problem.  But that was when I was trying to lead such a hectic life, both traveling and writing at the same time.

BD:    If that had happened today, though, there’ll probably be a broadcast tape and someone could transcribe it!

LO:    Yes, today with the mechanical devices that would be possible, but in those days they didn’t have that.  It would have been very simple.  At the time when I was actually remembering it, I would have played it and had a recording of it, and then would have been able to translate it back again on paper.  [Sighs]  Those things happen.

BD:    [Trying to be optimistic]  Maybe it’ll still come back to you one day...

LO:    [Laughs]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you were playing other people
s music, did you play that differently because you were yourself a composer of new music?

LO:    I don’t know.  I suppose I did apparently play them possibly somewhat differently.  Whether it was because I was writing myself I don’t know, but generally I probably was a little more experimental in how successful every interpretation was.  Sometimes the interpretations actually changed somewhat.  I’ve always been afraid of over stylizing myself, both in writing and in playing, particularly in writing.  That is why you’d be very much interested how the same person could write something like the Dance Sauvage or the Dances of Notre Dame or the Three Moods, and then the Quintet for Piano and Strings or the Cello Sonata .  The Fourth Sonata and a piece called Morning in the Woods apparently have been played quite a good deal, and have been apparently played over a good many radios in places all over the country.  Those pieces you understand naturally.  I think your audience would really understand and enjoy them, because they’re not excessively modern.  But you yourself will see that there are moments that really move one quite deeply in some of those pieces.

ornsteinBD:    I want to ask you a bit about teaching.  You taught for a number of years and then formed your own music school?

LO:    When I gave up playing I had to earn my living somehow, so I thought that probably teaching would be less of a disturbance to my writing.  So I taught in Philadelphia for I don’t know how long.  There was a school there that engaged me.  They had a piano department, and I taught there for a number of years.

BD:    Did you teach only piano, or also composition?

LO:    Oh, no, no, I never taught composition.  That’s one thing
I don’t believe that it can be taught.  You can teach the mechanics, but composition is such an inventive art that it’s impossible to teach it.  How are you going to teach a person to think up a melodic line?  There are no standards by which you can guide yourself.  That’s something that if the gods are willing, something comes into your head that will move the listener and move you, or not.  Sometimes some lines will just be fairly empty and even possibly trivial.

BD:    In your music or music of others, where is the balance between the inspiration and the mechanics?

LO:    You have to have some technical skills, particularly if you use my system, my way of writing where I depend entirely upon hearing the thing intact.  There are two ways that one can write.  Some people apparently write an outline, and then underneath what we call the harmonic system is being superimposed.  But I can’t write that way at all.  I have to hear the thing absolutely completed.  I have to hear the melodic line and the structure under it as one aspect.  Actually, my training has been of comparative little use, and particularly in the more experimental fields.  I was brought up at first in the strictest traditional manner, and why suddenly out of the blue sky I would have heard something like the Dance Sauvage I’ve never been able to explain to myself.  I really thought at first that I was almost losing my mind by writing this.  Yet I thought I've got to get it out of my system, so I put it down on paper.  Then other people that happened to hear it suddenly took it up.  As a matter of fact, I was in Paris at the time when a man by the name of Calvocoressi, who was supposed to be one of the fine critics at that time, heard it, and he was so intrigued by some of my things.  I was a youngster of about sixteen or seventeen, and he asked whether I would play some of the things when he was going to talk about them at one of the lectures that he gave at the Sorbonne.

BD:    I know the name Calvocoressi.  [See box below]

LO:    He was of Greek origin, but he lived in Paris.  He wrote probably the finest analysis and biography of Mussorgsky, who wrote the famous opera, Boris Godunov.  I’m afraid that's about all I can tell you right now.  I get rather fatigued at my age, you know.

BD:    Oh, that’s perfectly all right.  You've been more than gracious to speak with me for a half hour this evening.  I do appreciate it very much.

LO:    You’re entirely welcome, although frankly I now give very few interviews.  I get letters, and people ask me whether they could come, but I shun those because I’m just getting a bit too old.

BD:    That makes this conversation even more special. 

LO:    Thank you.


Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi (2 October 1877, Marseille, France – 1 February 1944, London, England) was a multilingual music writer and critic who promoted musicians such as Franz Liszt and Modest Mussorgsky.

Calvocoressi was born in France of Greek parents. At first, he studied law at the Lycée Janson de Sailly, and then studied music at the Conservatoire de Paris with Xavier Leroux. He became friends with Maurice Ravel. As a talented polyglot, Calvocoressi began a career in 1902 as a music critic and correspondent for several English, American, German and Russian periodicals. He also translated song texts, opera librettos and books from Russian and Hungarian into French and English. His subject of his first book was Liszt, but he was a strong proponent of Mussorgsky and other Russian musicians.

Calvocoressi lectured at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Sociales from 1905 to 1914, teaching about contemporary music. At the onset of World War I, the Greek Calvocoressi found himself unable to serve the French cause. He moved to London and served as a cryptographer. He spent the rest of his life in England, was naturalized, married an English citizen, and wrote the remainder of his books in English. Calvocoressi was a member of the Apaches music society.

Calvocoressi's legacy as a music critic and translator was his advocacy for Russian music. He wrote three books on Modest Mussorgsky. He was the French advisor for Sergei Diaghilev as Diaghilev was introducing Russian arts to the French

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on July 18, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB later that year, and again in 1992 and 1997; on WNUR twice in 2011, and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio also in2011.  A copy of the unedited audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern UniversityThis transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.