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About Leo Ornstein

Ornstein's  Personality and Attitudes about Music

The dominant feature of Ornstein's personality was a constant restless energy. It shows itself not only throughout his music and in its variety, but also in the progress of his life. He wore things out and was constantly seeking new directions. This is no doubt reflected in the initial burst of originality in his writing - an escape to new fields - as well as in his eventual rejection of its extremes. His worst fear was of repeating himself.

    Also in this Section       
Personality and Attitudes about Music
Approach to Composing
Reminiscences and Observations
Pauline's Memoir

Despite the fact that he was at one time a highly public figure, it was not his nature to be so - which no doubt helps to explain why he abandoned a highly successful performing career and in later life became an intensely private, almost reclusive person. It also explains why information about him is so sparse, often conflicting, and sometimes incorrect. Despite a great fear of public appearances, when he was young he clearly relished the renown. But fame lost its luster over time, and in later life he shrank from public exposure of any kind.

Atop Mt. Moat, ca. 1946

In musical matters, however, he was never shy about voicing his opinions, which were usually strongly held and often ran counter to conventional wisdom. Although polite, he was also honest and in private his opinions could be scathing. No one was immune. He didn't hesitate to ridicule such icons as Beethoven, and even his beloved Bach, whenever they produced material which he considered not up to snuff. But he was equally demanding of himself and tore up far more than he ever finished. He often worked simultaneously on several, often vastly different works at once, switching from one to the other when he encountered a roadblock. His lighter works often provided respite from his more demanding composing.

Ornstein disdained rhetoric and referred to much music as simply "turning the crank." He said that one could churn out such rhetoric "by the yard" and referred to it as "treading water." Once, while listening to the Beethoven 7th Symphony , he commented "you can hear the machinery creaking." He felt that what was important was substance - that hard-to-define thing that distinguishes the truly great from the merely rhetorical. The fact that so large a fraction of his music is for solo piano and so little for orchestra stems not only from the fact that he himself was a pianist, but also from his belief that it was too easy to hide the absence of substance behind the sonority of an orchestra. He was fond of reducing music to its rudiments on the piano in order to expose the presence or absence of what he called "real ideas."

He felt that the most important musical gift lay in powerful melodic lines. Everything else could be learned, but a gift for melody you either had or you didn't. He considered some of Beethoven's tunes (for example the opening theme of the last movement of the Waldstein sonata) terribly banal. On the other hand he was particularly fond of the Op 111 Piano Sonata . But Bach was his real favorite; he felt that Bach's music was something altogether apart from the rest of music. He was particularly fond of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue and, of course, the Saint Matthew Passion .


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