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A (mostly) forgotten American composer...Leo Ornstein

Updated: Dec 28, 2019

Until I heard Ben Smith perform Sonata No. 4 at Stirlingfest in October, I had never heard of Ornstein. I was mesmerized by this sonata; it was fresh, and exuberant with gorgeous melodies over an atonal and polyrhythmical accompaniment. It was like the music of Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Schoenberg, Rachmaninoff, and several Russian composers had been thrown in a blender and the result was music unlike anything I had ever heard before.

So who was Leo Ornstein, and where has his music been my entire musical life? His story is as original as his music.

Leo Ornstein was born around 1895 in Ukraine. The exact year is in dispute because his parents lied about his age in order for him to study at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. While Leo was still in his early teens, his family emigrated to the U.S. where Leo continued his piano studies in New York City at what was to become the Julliard School of Music. He soon gained international fame as a brilliant concert pianist, premiering works by the likes of Debussy and Ravel. Along with his successful concert career, Leo was also writing what he called "futuristic" music. He began including his compositions in his concerts and they were met with bad reviews and hostile audiences.

Suddenly, around 1930 he left the concert stage and virtually disappeared. His music vanished with him; very little of it was commercially published and no one by he performed it. After a few years he was completely forgotten.

In the 1970's, when modernism and atonality were well-established in the musical world, there was an attempted revival of his music. Very little of his music was available. It was then discovered that Leo was alive and well and living in a trailer park in Texas. For 25 years he and his wife had operated a small music school in Philadelphia (John Coltrane was one of his students) and they were now retired. During all those years, Leo had never stopped writing music. It was never performed or published, he just kept composing.

He felt that if his music was meant to be performed it would be, if not it probably shouldn't be. Leo completed his last piano sonata (No. 8) when he was 94 years old. He died in 2002 at the age of 108.

Leo's son and grandson have collected all of the compositions, numbered, dated them and have made them available for free download on their website

I'm busy exploring his music.

Check out his 6 Watercolors here....

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