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American Composers and Musicians from A to Z: O (Part 1—Ornstein, Leo)

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Leo Ornstein (1895-2002) was a composer, pianist, and educator whose life spanned 11 decades and three different centuries.  He embodied a tenacious work ethic and possessed an incredible musical talent.  His life took him from Russia to Texas, championing other modernist composers on his concert programs and writing his own compositions.

Ornstein’s childhood home was Kremenchuk, Ukraine.  He grew up surrounded by the Greek and Armenian chants he heard in Russian cathedrals. At the age of 10, Ornstein auditioned for the Petrograd Conservatory.  He had such a tremendous sense of pitch that he transposed his entire audition up one half-step to compensate for the piano (the piano itself was in tune, with the exception that it was pitched one half-step lower than his piano at home).  He began to study there with Alexander Glazunov, only to flee to the United States in 1907 to avoid religious persecution.

After arriving in the U.S., Ornstein was given a scholarship at the New York Institute of Musical Art (now known as Juilliard), and he began performing recitals.  On these programs, he gave the American premieres of Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit (BRM00715) and Sonatine (BRM32634), as well as works by Bartók, Debussy, and Schoenberg.  He also began including his own works on these recitals. In 1925, he performed his Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra with Leopold Stokowski conducting.

Program for the Little Theatre for April 22, 1928.

Martha Graham choreographed Ornstein’s Poems of 1917 in a recital in 1928. The program from that concert is in the archives of the Library of Congress and can be viewed here.

Ornstein stopped performing abruptly in the 1920s to set up a music school in Philadelphia with his wife, Pauline Mallet-Prèvost. The Ornstein School of Music included such distinguished alumni as John Coltrane and Jimmy Smith.  Ornstein retired from public life in 1940, remaining relatively anonymous until the 1970s. At that point, his family contacted the legendary biographer Vivian Perlis, who worked actively to promote his music. When Perlis tracked him down, Ornstein was living in a trailer park in Texas. He was still composing music at a tremendous pace at that time, because he was unable to tolerate the area’s extreme heat.

Until 1975, there were no recordings of Ornstein’s compositions.  This changed when he received the Peabody Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1975, which led to a flurry of recordings of his music.  His final composition was the Sonata no. 8 for piano, which he composed in 1990.  He would compose music by dictating to his wife, hearing the entire composition in its finished form as he was creating it. His music was part of the modernist movement in the arts, where—in the case of music—composers would create new rules and use these guidelines as a means of musical expression.  This was not only true of his own music, but of the music that he performed early in his career.  Schoenberg used serialism, Debussy was an impressionist, and Bartok relied on the rhythm and timing of language. Their styles appealed to Ornstein, and he used their techniques to develop his own musical voice.

Ornstein’s published works indicate that he was born in 1895, however Ornstein himself insists he was born in 1892, and other sources date his birth in 1893.  Regardless of his actual birth year, he lived a very full life and left a legacy for composers, performers, and educators to ponder for years to come.  His son, Severo Ornstein, 86, lives in Woodside, Calif., and still actively promotes his father’s music on various social media.

If you would like to explore the music of Leo Ornstein, here are a few pieces in the NLS Music Section’s holdings that will get you started.

Evening Prayer, op. 9, no.5 (BRM15895)

Nocturne for clarinet and piano (BRM33805)

Pygmy Suite, op. 9 (BRM00361)

Serenade, op. 9, no. 1 (BRM10926)

Valse in G, op. 4, no. 1 (BRM16119)


To read more about Martha Graham, consider the collection Martha Graham at the Library of Congress.

Finally, for further insight onto the “Modernist” composers, consider the following:

World’s 50 greatest composers. Bela Bartok (DBM01662)

World’s 50 greatest composers. Arnold Schoenberg (DBM01659)

Michael Barclay lectures on Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy (DBM00791)

To borrow any materials mentioned in this blog, you may access BARD or request a copy on digital cartridge by contacting the Music Section by phone at 1-800-424-8567, option 2, or e-mail [email protected].

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