Ornstein, Leo

For more than half of his unusually long life, and after two decades under the glare of classical music’s spotlight of fame, Leo Ornstein was one of those people whose name—if he was recalled at all—generated the clichéd, musing question “Whatever happened to . . .” Implied more often than not was uncertainty about whether he was even still alive.

Pretty much forgotten in the music world by the time he was just past forty, albeit largely by his own design, this centenarian composer and pianist was once not only a prominent maverick of the avant-garde but a central focus of the wider public’s musical limelight. His work ignited both approbation and excoriation, curiosity and confusion, respect and controversy, admiration and condemnation—sometimes in nearly equal measures. Supported by all available evidence dating to the period of Ornstein’s public heyday, as well as by mid- to late-20th-century recollections, Carol J. Oja—an historian of modern music’s place in New York during the first quarter of the 20th century—has gone so far as to identify him without contradiction as “the single most important figure on the American modern music scene in the 1910s.”

At the height of his fame, Ornstein the composer was regarded in some circles as being on an equal plane with some of those who were on the road to becoming the accepted modernist giants of the 20th century, notably and most frequently Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

Yet by 1945 Olin Downes of The New York Times would echo a question occasionally posed by those among the generation once familiar with Ornstein’s virtuoso pianistic career, or with the sensation that had surrounded his own groundbreaking music—or with both. “What of Leo Ornstein,” he wrote, “bright particular star of American composition a quarter of a century ago? We recently asked three of the composers of the rising generation about him. Two of them did not know his name. Twenty years ago his name was on the lips of every informed composer.” 

Ornstein was born and spent his early childhood in Kremenchug, a fairly large city in the Poltava region of the Ukraine, then part of the Czarist Empire. His father has always been identified as a cantor (at least prior to the family’s emigration) in biographical sketches and inherited family history, but whether he was a musically and liturgically schooled hazzan who occupied one or more pulpits on a formal basis, an itinerant hazzan, or a lay ba’al t’filla (prayer leader) has never been clarified. And we know nothing of Ornstein’s early Jewish education or Jewish life.

In any case, as with many if not most classical musicians in America of his era whose European family roots lay in traditional Jewish and sometimes even religiously observant households, he appears to have lived his adult years completely estranged from any aspects of Jewish life—religious or secular-cultural—including his sixty-three-year marriage to a non-Jew, who was also his committed collaborator as well as his musical scribe.

Still, in referring to his father as a cantor, Ornstein clearly never shied away from his Jewish heritage. And some embedded strains of a perceived eastern European Jewish melos appear never to have left his memory entirely. These can be detected in some of the melodic echoes in his simpler, more conservative pieces—especially those for cello.

Some confusion has always surrounded Ornstein’s correct birth date. Although during his life and even afterward, his birth year was cited frequently as 1892, or sometimes 1893 or 1895, 1894 is now more generally accepted. Indeed, such discrepancies were not unusual concerning Jewish immigrants to America at the time, especially those from the Czarist Empire, whose parents might have altered a son’s birth year for various reasons—eligibility for military conscription not least among them. Another, unrelated motive involved child prodigies of the concert stage. Parents could intuit an obvious advantage in keeping alive the “child image” for as long as possible for the sake of public fascination. Having a child prodigy appear to be even younger than he was at the outset of his performing career could also be at play. (In a similar vein, exploitative parents of past generations sometimes deliberately kept young prodigies dressed onstage as much younger children—with corresponding hairstyles—even after they had outgrown that image. Audiences responded naively with increased enthusiasm; and had press agents existed in those days, they would undoubtedly have encouraged the ruse. One thinks, for example, of the American-born violin prodigy Yehudi Menuhin, still appearing for concerts in the stereotypical shorts, knee-length hose, and white overblouse of his actual childhood long after he would have graduated to more suitable attire.)

Other factors could also drive birth date alterations in Europe, such as getting around minimum age requirements for entrance into particular educational or training institutions. It is now believed or at least suspected that Ornstein’s parents initially shaved off as many as two years from his true birth year to exaggerate his prodigy status for the benefit of public consumption, but then, later, not only added them back but tacked on another year when he would otherwise not have met the minimum age requirement for entry into the St. Petersburg Conservatory.

Standard biographical sketches at one time stated simply that Ornstein displayed extraordinary gifts at the piano at a very young age, that he was considered a major child prodigy, and that he studied with the esteemed Russian composer Alexander Glazunov at the St. Petersburg Conservatory from the age of ten. (His earliest biographer gave the age of entry as eight, having accepted the 1892 birth year, whereas one obituary gave the age of twelve.)

Various accounts (not always adequately documented) have attempted to fill in some of the gaps of that skeletal story, adding that as early as 1902 he was “discovered” as a true prodigy by one of the most celebrated pianists of the day, Josef Hofmann, on a visit to Kremenchug. Hofmann is said to have provided the young Ornstein with a letter of recommendation to the St. Petersburg Conservatory at that point (which, if 1894 was Ornstein’s correct birth year, might explain a fabrication of 1892, if ten was the minimum age for entry).

In this version of events, however, Ornstein was accepted shortly thereafter by the Imperial School of Music in Kiev, where he studied (or may have) for only a brief period; and a year later he was recommended to the Moscow Conservatory by another of the pianistic giants, Ossip Gabrilovich—though it is assumed that he did not become a student there. What does appear certain is that in 1904 he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studiedcompositionwith Glazunov but piano with Anna Essipova.

In either 1906 or 1907 Ornstein’s parents immigrated to the United States and settled in New York. Pogroms are usually cited as the reason for the family’s emigration, but without explanation. This may be typical of uninformed assumptions regarding Jewish emigration from the Czarist Empire, much if not most of which during that time frame was driven by socioeconomic, family-related, and other considerations more often than by firsthand experience with the eruptions of murderous mob violence known as pogroms.

Ornstein became a piano pupil of Bertha Fiering Tapper at the Institute for Musical Art (later to become The Juilliard School). He made his New York debut as a pianist in 1911 with a conventional program drawn from the standard repertoire (Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Schumann). But around that time, or perhaps a year earlier, his path began to swerve toward the embrace of radically different priorities as he began composing music that would come to be described as “of the wildest sort . . . piling dissonances upon dissonances” and employing “barbaric and complex rhythms”—music that is said to have “stunned” his audiences.

For roughly the next fifteen years he became an unrelenting proponent of modern music in general. He provided American audiences with some of their first engagements with music of the first quarter of the 20th century, ranging from composers whose works were still unfamiliar in America and considered “new music”—only later to find broad appeal (Debussy, Ravel, Franck, and Albeniz, among others)—to those such as Bartók and Scriabin, whose fresh language and extended harmonies, though hardly modern by subsequent (or any) standards, still departed in their originality from habituated tastes and expectations. His introductions also included iconic modernists, notably Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Moreover, his performances of certain works by these composers were world premieres.

But it was Ornstein’s own highly courageous music of that period (played at his recitals alongside pieces by these others) that caused the greater sensation—eliciting fascination among curious open-minded listeners but provoking in others consternation, opprobrium, and even disbelief often coupled with outright fury.

His signature compound pitch clusters, his simultaneous use of multiple keys, his harsh chromaticism, his polyrhythms that were sometimes superimposed one upon another in the absence of identifiable contrapuntal schemes, his parallel or open intervals—stacked or in progression—his violent bursts of energy, his impressions of structural disorder, and his seemingly quasi-improvisational but in fact studiously worked overall musical anarchy all combined to produce a composite oeuvre that would remain unique. In certain respects, however—and with some irony in view of contemporaneous dismissals—he foreshadowed the use of some of those very sonorities, techniques, and procedures by a number of significant 20th-century composers who would achieve substantial respectability. But at the time, even many who could as a rule be receptive to the new simply did not know what to make of these sounds or how they might be part of any musical sense or structure—or what to make of Ornstein himself.

Indeed, Ornstein made no claim to any underlying theoretical system. If there was any carefully devised method of pitch, harmonic, or rhythmic organization that could, upon analysis, reveal a process of logical development, it eluded even those to whom his music spoke.

Responding to his most radical bombastic expositions, which were unrelated to any semblance of tonal context—especially passages or sections that could come across as cacophonous, promiscuous pummeling of the keyboard in brazen assaults on the ear—some even wondered whether he was actually serious, or if he expected to be taken seriously. He, too, appears to have been confounded, at least initially, by what he was doing, almost as if driven by some inexplicable force beyond his control. “I really doubted my sanity,” he has been quoted as commenting in retrospect. “I simply said, what is that? It was so completely removed from any experience I ever had.”

Among his most frequently cited representative piano pieces of that time frame (the 1910s) are Danse Sauvage, Poems of 1917, Three Preludes, Two Impressions of Notre Dame, and Suicide in an Airplane. In all these and others of that period he either abandoned tonality altogether or superimposed multiple tonalities, and perhaps ambiguous semblances of keys in simultaneous combinations, so that no tonal reference points could be detected; and he encased these sonorities within, or propelled them by, rhythms so complex that they could barely be deciphered, if at all. Apart from his piano works, his Violin Sonata Op. 31 (1915) perhaps best illustrates that radical abandon in his “ultramodernism” with its extreme dissonances and jagged chromaticism.

Ornstein’s London debut in 1914 ignited a firestorm with its program of pieces by Schoenberg in addition to his own. But it also included Busoni’s completely tonal and non-dissonant Bach transcriptions and arrangements, which somehow failed to mediate the critical attacks on the pianist’s exposure and advocacy of modernism. Yet it is difficult today to imagine how “Bach-Busoni” could have been perceived as modern or could offend those who eschewed modernism in that context. By and large there was still little concern in that era for so-called historically faithful rendition, a holy grail of sorts that was pursued only later in the century, when free virtuosic tampering with the canonized masters such as Bach could amount to virtual heresy. To the contrary, the concert world of 1914—audiences, performers, many if not most critics, and even pedagogues—readily accepted and even encouraged pianistic expansions and rearrangements of classical works, ranging from flashier “updated” alternatives to original Beethoven cadenzas to dazzling paraphrases on operatic arias, and from transcriptions of Schubert songs and Beethoven symphonies to recomposed, elaborated, embellished, and pianistically personalized sections of Liszt rhapsodies.

Some of Ornstein’s London detractors took aim at modernism in general, reserving their harshest attacks for his own music. In the press he was compared scornfully with Schoenberg and Scriabin—“the sum of Schoenberg and Scriabin squared,” which today might be read as a complimentary endorsement. A reaction in the London Observer was even more brutal: “We have never suffered from such insufferable hideousness, expressed in terms of so-called music.” And his second London appearance, which he devoted to his own compositions, is said to have sparked an English version of a riot. Ornstein would recall later that “the crowd whistled and howled and even threw handy missiles on the stage.”

Yet not all London was aghast. In The Musical Standard he was adjudged “one of the most remarkable composers of the day . . . [containing] that germ of realism and humanity which is indicative of genius.”

By about 1915, following a series of four recitals in New York, Ornstein had fully seized the attention of the American music world. For the remainder of the decade and into the early 1920s he reigned both as a major box-office attraction playing to sold-out houses and as a polarizing enfant terriblewhose status within circumscribed circles of followers, as well as curiosity seekers, came to approach that of a cult figure. The audience at his 1918 performance at the prestigious Aeolian Hall, for example, was described in The New York Times as grabbing on “to walls, to organ pipes, pedal-base, stairs or any niche offering a view.” An article in the Baltimore Evening Sun proclaimed him “the intransigent pianist, who has set the entire musical world by the ears and who is probably the most discussed figure on the concert stage.” And in The Musical Quarterly he was acknowledged as “the most salient musical phenomenon of our time.”

For a time during that period Ornstein was characterized, albeit erroneously, as a “futurist”—a searching contemporaneous but soon dated reference concerning modernism, especially its extremities. In 1917, for example, critic James Huneker described him as “most emphatically, the only true-blue, genuine, Futurist composer alive.” But the label is misleading—nor is it helpful with regard to music—referring more correctly and more appropriately to the Italian art movement that had come to the fore by about 1910 and is not quite synonymous with modernism per se. Those who felt the need to categorize, for whom “modernist” in its broad inclusiveness did not suffice in this case, came more aptly to speak of him as an “ultramodernist.” Ornstein, however, described even some of his most provocative work of that period simply as “abstract music.” He applied that rubric, for example, to his 1915 sonata for violin and piano, adding—ostensibly in partial explanation of his subsequent retreat from that direction—that he had concluded that the work “had brought music just to the very edge. . . . I just simply drew back and said, ‘beyond that lies complete chaos.’”

That a composer only in his early to mid twenties could inspire a book-length biography is telling in itself of the degree to which Ornstein had jolted the American music scene as a unique and unprecedented phenomenon. In 1918 just such a book was published by Frederick H. Martens, long before American worship of celebrity youth culture would encourage that level of attention to anyone whose mature career and contributions were still assumed to lie in the future—much less to a figure of the serious artistic rather than the popular entertainment arena. Naturally, Martens stressed his subject’s sui generis role:

Leo Ornstein to many represents an evil 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-impressionist cries and crashes. He is the great anarch, the iconoclast.

Apparently by then, or not too long afterward, however, Ornstein was already beginning to reconsider his path, at first balancing his persisting “ultramodernism” with traditionally tonal works of the type that would eventually come to occupy a significant if not greater part of his efforts while still bearing the stamp of his originality. Thus, at the peak of his fame (or infamy) as a radical modernist and—though the term was not yet so much in vogue—a seemingly avowed non- or anti-tonal experimentalist, he wrote some manifestly dodecaphonic pieces unabashedly informed by late Romanticism and emotive lyricism. They would turn out to have foreshadowed his future bent, but at the time even he was confused by what he felt naturally impelled to do. Among these pieces was his first sonata for cello and piano, which, he later explained, was “written in less than a week under a compulsion that was not to be resisted. . . . Why I should have heard this romantic piece at the same period that I was tumultuously involved in the primitivism . . . is beyond my understanding.”

Nonetheless, that same time frame (probably between 1918 and 1920) still encompassed his composition of such radically independent, bold pieces as Suicide in an Airplane, for solo piano. A strange work in several respects, in which his signature tone clusters predominate in all their fury, it also requires rapid execution of a bass ostinato pattern to represent the intensity of aeronautic engine noise before and during flight. Commenting on it roughly eighty years after its creation, piano historian Joseph Smith opined that it belongs to those pieces by Ornstein that “represented (and may still represent) the ne plus ultra of pianistic violence.”

By all indications, Ornstein operated as a loner who sought little if any interaction with fellow composers or with other musicians who might in theory have taken interest in his work. Still, he did attract the favorable attention and even admiration of some among them, in particular the composer Henry Cowell, who also adopted and furthered some of Ornstein’s polytonal cluster techniques. Nonetheless, evaluation of Ornstein’s disaffection from modernism, as well as his loss of interest in exposure or acceptance, requires some understanding of the wider American contemporary music scene of his day. For in the very decade of his withdrawal, that scene experienced an expansion of opportunities for composers, of which he took no advantage.

Works by native or émigré American composers were not entirely absent from mainstream (mostly symphony) concert programs in the United States prior to the 1920s, though their inclusion was the exception rather than the rule. It was a culture of neglect that has remained a shortcoming of the overall American concert experience into the 21st century, despite a period of some successful movement toward rectification from the 1950s through the1970s. (And, Ornstein’s own daring programs notwithstanding, conventional or modern American music remains even rarer in solo recitals, apart from those dedicated to little-heard composers. 

But, with the possible exception of Charles Ives (only some of whose pieces place him fully in a modernist camp and whose oeuvre in any case never received much national attention during his life), American composers as a group or school up through the 1910s were little affected by budding modernist trends and developments—nor terribly much by European impressionists, nor by the influence of Spanish composers. Until after the First World War at the earliest, American classical music—especially orchestral works offered to typically old-line symphony concert audiences—was relatively conservative and still informed by the German–Central European tradition. Music of Ornstein’s radically modern bent, or even his more tame modernist expression, had no place alongside them.

The 1920s, however, witnessed the emergence of some progressively interested, forward-looking ensembles, organizations, and conductors (composers naturally among them) who were committed to providing forums for truly “new”—including manifestly modern—music. They offered encouragement for composers, and they began a process of expanding awareness when it came to American creativity.

That development began on a modest scale and, apart from rarefied college and conservatory settings, appertained at first mostly in the New York and Boston areas (with some notable exceptions such as Rudolph Ganz’s promotion of new music during his tenure as conductor of the St. Louis Symphony from 1921 to 1927, and subsequently in Chicago as an influential teacher, pianist, and leader). But the seeds were sown then for a more widespread quasi movement devoted to advocacy and performance of otherwise unheard or ignored 20th-century music of a variety of orientations, directions, and geographic or national origins. Although those efforts were always inherently circumscribed in their appeal, they did succeed over the ensuing decades in attracting followings, in introducing works of numerous adventurous composers to an interested or at least potentially interested public, in satisfying some of the appetite of confirmed aficionados, and in providing fresh experiences for those willing to risk open-minded consideration for the possible prize of broadened horizons of appreciation. 

By many assessments, the ferment of that movement—its breadth, influence, integrity, and tenacity—reached its zenith in the 1960s and 1970s. Depending on one’s interpretations of the course of 20th-century music and its most rigorous guises—usually based on overall individual attitudes, sensibilities, and preferences—that ferment has been viewed in some respects as having now become diluted under the pressure of audience demands for popular “accessibility.” On the other hand, one must acknowledge the continuing presence of new music ensembles and societies, composer “retrospective concerts,” and of course commissioning projects and awards. Still, by the mid to late 1920s, newborn new music advocacy was not insubstantial, and the resulting burgeoning activity at least gave composers a voice. In some cases it began to alter the prospects of reception for their work.

Yet all of this might have come too late for Ornstein, who by then seems to have lost interest in public—or even, in theory, collegial—reception, though we have no knowledge of his cultivating relationships with other composers as “fellow composers.” And he had begun his turn away from modernism. We can only speculate about whether his post-1920 course might have been different had he been of a mind to take advantage of the incipient contemporary music developments of that decade and their new opportunities for composers. And what if those opportunities had emerged a few years earlier? Had he simply become weary of his role as a symbol of both radical modernism and defiant sensationalism? Had he come to feel that he had exhausted his modernist inspiration and its related vocabulary, with little left to say in that language? Or was he internally and ultimately predisposed to reclusiveness?

Whether any one of those possibilities applied or whether there was a combination of them at play, he appears by about 1920 or shortly thereafter to have become irreversibly bent on withdrawal from public exposure. By the time modern music had begun to gain a new level of respectability in America apart from any sensationalism, he and his music were on the road to becoming forgotten. And everything about his life from then on, which involved insistence on privacy, indicates that he preferred his form of isolation.

“Fame never had much meaning or appeal to me,” he told Harold Schonberg, the chief critic of The New York 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 is now generally understood that Ornstein had come to resist novelty for its own sake and that what he now suspected was audience appetite for sensationalism on its own terms, without underlying musical sense and content. Moreover, it seems that he wanted no part of any image to which he would be seen as conforming—including the very “ultramodernist” image he had inadvertently (if we take him at his word, and there is no reason not to) cultivated.

Beginning in the 1920s, he appears to have preferred to allow inspiration and substance to speak for themselves by expressing them through whatever styles and techniques he found naturally guiding his musical ideas.

Meanwhile, Ornstein’s continuing turn toward his original brand of 19th-century-tinged, melodically appealing music, although often not lacking in some flavor of the “new,” or even veiled modernist echoes, earned him a new set of detractors—this time among composers and contemporary music aficionados. His path was now interpreted by some as patently reactionary, a cowardly, disloyal retreat, even a “sellout.” But, we might ask, to whom and to what can he have sold out? He did not seek any alternative commercial routes in popular or theatrical music that would have required works completely outside the modernist realm. Nor did he pursue any other avenues as a composer (within the conservatory or academic music establishments, for example) that might have necessitated retailoring his modernist approach or relinquishing principles. Apart from a sole commercial recording venture in which he made more than twenty piano rolls for the Ampico label (still an unguarded secret from all but the most fanatic pianophiles), playing standard repertoire and some by then “acceptable” modern pieces, and only two of his own pieces, he seems by then to have sought no popular recognition even in the classical realm. (He never recorded in any format—piano rolls; cylinders; magnetic tape; 78 rpm, 45 rpm, or LP records; film soundtrack; or other—any of the bold pieces once dubbed futuristic and then ultramodern that had been instrumental in bringing him celebrity status as well as notoriety.)

Perhaps most significant with regard to the sellout perception is that he could never be bothered to promote or disseminate the music of his so-called tonal period, the turn to which must thus be seen as a purely artistic, internally driven choice devoid of motives related to acceptability. And perhaps this too may best be understood in the context of his overall eccentricity. 

Indeed, he never completely or permanently abandoned his modernist tendencies in the totality of his post-1920s opera. But he often tempered them with simple (sometimes deceptively so)—but not at all simplistic—melodic invention that could be made to coexist with dissonant juxtapositions. One of the best examples of this mixed aesthetic is his 1927 piano quintet.

By the early to mid 1920s Ornstein had all but ceased concert appearances, with a few sporadic exceptions as he wound down altogether. The date of his final public concert—during the early 1930s—remains open to some question. A reliable source observes that he played at a 1930 Aaron Copland–Roger Sessions concert and mentions no subsequent performance. Another refers more vaguely to a “final” appearance in 1933, but contains other errors concerning dates. In any case, it was during the 1920s that, while performing only rarely, if at all, he wrote some of the works that are now considered among his most significant ones, and in 1925 he received a commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra for a piano concerto.

At some point in the mid-1920s he began teaching at the institution known as the Philadelphia Musical Academy, which was later absorbed by the University of the Arts. (The actual year in which he assumed that position and relocated to Philadelphia remains in dispute, possibly because one event could have occurred prior to the other, or because it depends upon how one defines “began.”)

Later he and his wife—a former New York debutante and socialite as well as a pianist whom he first met as a fellow student at the Institute of Musical Art and wed in 1918—founded the Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia. Both of them taught there and jointly directed the school until it was closed sometime around 1953, when Ornstein retired from teaching and the two left the city. (Some accounts refer to their selling or otherwise transferring it to a faculty member, but in any case it did not survive for long after that—a few years at most.)

By then, beyond being known in Philadelphia for his pedagogic activity there, he had already slipped from any wider public consciousness—having faded increasingly in the years after 1937, when his Nocturne and Dance of Fate received its world premiere by the St. Louis Symphony. “I’ve heard he’s teaching somewhere” or “I haven’t heard that name in years” was probably the most informed of responses in the 1940s or early 1950s to any spontaneous conversational curiosity about what had become of the forgotten celebrity. Now, with his departure from Philadelphia and his shunning any further teaching positions as well as any publicity, appearances, recording, or even publication, he in effect evaporated into the ether of virtual obscurity. He continued to compose, however, into his nineties, and his wife frequently assisted by notating pieces he had composed at the piano and preserved in his memory but failed to memorialize himself with pen or pencil and score paper.

It was only in the 1970s that Vivian Perlis, in the course of a research project at Yale University, found the couple living and working in a trailer park in Texas. Naturally, that discovery not only produced an aura of fascination heightened by the connotations attached to that environment, it also evoked a romanticized image of destitution coupled with sheer oddity. Ornstein’s age, his continued creativity during all those years out of public view, and his long-lasting marriage that was also a working musical partnership all made for a good but completely true story. The circumstances of their strange solitude were slightly—though only slightly—exaggerated in assumptions that the story generated, inasmuch as the Ornsteins maintained a home in New Hampshire and were spending the winter in Texas. Nonetheless, the nature and surroundings of their winter abode only encouraged the sense of astonishment. Of far more serious interest, both to those who had wondered occasionally with some nostalgia about him and to more recent generations drawn to 20th-century music but unaware of him, was his artistic tenacity, his drive all that time to compose incognito, and, above all, the body of music of which they had been unaware. And over the next two decades that oeuvre continued to grow.

Some of Ornstein’s most inviting and melodically inventive pianos pieces were written while he was in his eighties. Even later, his seventh piano sonata was written in 1988, and insofar as we know, he composed his final work—his eighth piano sonata—two years afterward. In some ways that swan song reflects the unique iconoclasm of his artistic life span—an amalgamation and perhaps even a resolution of his various incongruities, in defiance of conformity or categorization. Apart from the music itself, this is suggested by its irregular, intentionally strange, and humorously provocative movement titles and subtitles:

I. Life’s Turmoil and a Few Bits of Satire

II. A Trip to the Attic—a Tear or Two for a Childhood Forever Gone

a. The Bugler
b. A Lament for a Lost Boy
c. A Half-Mutilated Cradle—Berceuse
d. First Carousel Ride and Sounds of a Hurdy-Gurdy

III. Disciplines and Improvisation 

The imagination underlying these quizzical, quirky, unorthodox, and only party programmatic tags can seem a bit reminiscent of similarly playful verbiage sometimes employed by another composer whose music resists classification: Stefan Wolpe.

Reviewing the world premiere of Ornstein’s eighth sonata in the year of its composer’s death, New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini commented:

Between the roaring craziness of the first and third movements, the middle movement is a suite of four short musical musings on childhood mementos discovered in an attic. Though completely incongruous, the shift in tone is audacious and the music disarming. The audience listened raptly, then erupted in applause.

The sonata still provoked unanswerable questions. Was Ornstein basically a modernist, whether radical or moderate? A retro-Romantic? A reactionary? A neo-anything? Or a searching musical spirit who couldn’t make up his mind? With this work, it was as if he had at last come home—back to his former if mellowed role—confusing, mystifying, perplexing, and gratifying audiences all at the same time.

If in truth, as Oscar Wilde once proposed, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative,” then Ornstein’s imagination, far from bowing to convention or convenience, needed no refuge.



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