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Thread: Leo Ornstein

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    Default Leo Ornstein


    After reading about him somewhere on this forum, I recently bought a cd of the Russian-American composer Leo Ornstein (1893?-2002). Wikipedia says Ornstein "was a leading American experimental composer and pianist of the early twentieth century. His performances of works by avant-garde composers and his own innovative and even shocking pieces made him a cause célèbre on both sides of the Atlantic." Despite his early fame and success as a pianist, Ornstein stopped performing before he turned 40, and devoted the rest of his working life to composition and teaching. He composed until about 1990, and died in 2002 aged around 108.

    His early use of tone clusters is discernible on the disc, as is the influence of Schoenberg and (more strongly, I think), Debussy. His output was very eclectic, there's no clear progression from tonality to atonality, from simple to more complex. Romanticism, Impressionism, Modernism and Serialism (that's many isms!) are all thrown into the mix. But his Sonata No. 4, for example, composed in the 1920's seems decades ahead of it's time. I sense a progressive aesthetic at work, very forward looking, although I haven't heard that many solo piano works of the Twentieth Century.

    I'd like to hear people's views. & here's the final movement from Ornstein's Sonata No. 4, which I really like:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_sTXE95laQQ

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    Senior Member Lukecash12's Avatar
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    Ornstein was pretty great. Actually, his compositions make up a substantial chunk of my repertoire (as a pianist, at least).
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lukecash12 View Post
    Ornstein was pretty great. Actually, his compositions make up a substantial chunk of my repertoire (as a pianist, at least).
    Funny, I'm a pianist and I've never heard of him.
    "Summit or death, either way, I win" ~R. Schumann

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    recently introduced to him through Vivan Perlis book and recorded interviews (Composer's Voices series). My affinity for Charles Ives and the like immediately perked up when I heard his music.

    The following website has free sheet music and streaming listening! >>www.poonhill.com

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    Concerning the current interest in Ornstein there are some free downloads available at a website dedicated to the composer, and since it was designed and organized by his own family, everything there must be assumed to be fully legal:

    http://www.poonhill.com/audio.html

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    Thanks for that link, joen - I'll have a look at some stage.

    After a year or so with the Naxos Ornstein disc (played by Janice Weber), I'm understanding the music in a deeper sense. When I first heard the disc, I immediately heard the influence of Debussy to be quite strong, but now I can hear how he carried on the Russian Romantic tradition of Tchaikovsky & Rachmaninov. There is an overall Romantic feel to both the sonatas on the disc, No. 4 (1920's) and No. 7 (1988). As I said in my first post, I really like the final movement of the former (marked Vivo - which, incidentally, is the same marking Prokofiev used in the final movement of his 5th piano concerto). This movement starts with a Russian dance-like theme, then there is a secondary theme which is much darker but he doesn't linger there much (his secondary themes are often more interesting than his primary ones), then a part that sounds "atonal," then some Impressionistic watery sounding music, then a return to earlier ideas of the sonata, and the main theme to finish off. I have not heard any other composer (save Ives) pack so much into one movement - not only in terms of ideas but also styles. Somehow, it all sounds cohesive, and makes more of an impression on the listener the more one listens to it.

    I really like this composer & expect to get Marc-Andre Hamelin's recording also, which includes Ornstein's final sonata, the 8th. It's a pity that he's still not all that well known, and added to that the technical difficulty of his music must also keep it out of the concert halls.

    His descendants have been doing some good work, cataloguing and authorising definitive editions of his works. Ornstein was notorious for working from fragmentary sketches - for example, he had his first three sonatas all memorised but never fully written down - so much of his music is sadly now lost to us. He also neglected to date many of his manuscripts, so there is much confusion (for example) in the provenance of some pieces (eg. Suicide in an Airplane could have been written anytime between 1910 and 1940, depending on who you ask). In the last decade some advances have been made in these areas, and the Weber and Hamelin discs are testament to this. Hopefully, more of his works will be made available in the coming years on disc, now that his manuscripts are being sorted out by his family. Good one them, indeed, his memory must be kept alive - he was up there with the best in the first few decades of the C20th...
    Last edited by Sid James; Sep-18-2010 at 04:19.

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    Eclectic indeed. A Morning in the Woods is a very pretty piece.

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