Leo Ornstein (born December 2, 1893 – February 24, 2002) was an American 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.
Ornstein was the first important composer to make extensive use of the tone cluster. As a pianist, he was considered a world-class talent. By the mid-1920s, he had walked away from his fame and soon disappeared from popular memory. Though he gave his last public concert before the age of forty, he continued writing music for another half-century and beyond. Largely forgotten for decades, he was rediscovered in the mid-1970s. Ornstein completed his eighth and final piano sonata at the age of ninety-seven, making him the oldest published composer in history (a mark since passed by Elliott Carter).
Ornstein was born in Kremenchuk, a large town in the Ukrainian province of Poltava, then under Imperial Russian rule. He grew up in a musical environment—his father was a Jewish cantor, while a violinist uncle encouraged the young boy's studies. Ornstein was recognized early on as a prodigy on the piano; in 1902, when the celebrated Polish pianist Josef Hofmann visited Kremenchug, he heard the eight-year-old Ornstein perform. Hofmann gave him a letter of recommendation to the highly regarded St. Petersburg Conservatory. Soon after, Ornstein was accepted as a pupil at the Imperial School of Music in Kiev, then headed by Vladimir Puchalsky. A death in the family forced Ornstein's return home. In 1903, Osip Gabrilovich heard him play and recommended him to the Moscow Conservatory. In 1904, the ten-year-old Ornstein auditioned for and was accepted by the St. Petersburg school. There he studied composition with Alexander Glazunov and piano with Anna Yesipova. By the age of eleven, Ornstein was earning his way by coaching opera singers. To escape the pogroms incited by the nationalist and antisemitic organisation Union of the Russian People, the family emigrated to the United States in February 1906. They settled in New York's Lower East Side, and Ornstein enrolled in the Institute of Musical Art—predecessor to the Juilliard School—where he studied piano with Bertha Feiring Tapper. In 1911, he made a well-received New York debut with pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Schumann. Recordings two years later of works by Chopin, Grieg, and Poldini demonstrate, according to music historian Michael Broyles, "a pianist of sensitivity, prodigious technical ability, and artistic maturity."..
Quotes by Leo Ornstein
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