Leo Ornstein (1895-2002, American)

Born in Ukraine, trained at the St. Petersburg conservatory and emigrated to the US in 1906, Ornstein became a great American modernist, something like a brother spirit to George Antheil, whose fame in the early 1910s and 1920s and subsequent fall into oblivion would make you forget that he lived until 2002, reaching the venerable age of 106 (see the fine article on Wikipedia, once again an invaluable well of knowledge two clics away). His short piano piece “A la chinoise” is a tour de force. You can hear it on

“Valentines”. Marthanne Verbit Plays Works of George Gershwin, George Antheil, John Diercks, Joseph Fennimore, Leo Ornstein, Cyril Scott. Albany Troy 071 (1992)

The American Innovator (works by Leo Ornstein, John Adams, Ruth Crawford-Seeger, Henry Cowell, Mario Davidovsky, John Harbison, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Milton Babbitt, Conlon Nancarrow, John Cage, Charles Ives, Ralph Shapey, Thelonius Monk)Alan Feinberg. Argo 436 925-2 (1993)

There’s also a great all-Ornstein CD by Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion CDA 67320, barcode 034571173207 (2002) which I haven’t reviewed yet.

His Violin and Piano Sonata from 1913 is a much tougher nut to crack, “couched in an atonal and thorny language reminiscent of Berg and Schoenberg at their starkest”. It was recorded circa 1980 by Gregory Fulkerson and Alan Feinberg, on a recital disc for New World Records reissued to CD in 1995, Cadenzas and Variations (with works of Copland, Glass and Wernick).

Great website maintained by Leo’s son Severo and grandson David.


Comments are welcome