Leo Ornstein

Leo Ornstein (Born on December 2, 1893 in Kremenchuk, Ukraine – Died on February 24, 2002 in Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA) was a Russia/Ukraine-born American Jewish composer and pianist particularly known for his modernist or “futurist” works, although his overall compositional output includes many styles. He achieved great renown in the US in the 1920s, then withdrew from public life and fell into obscurity until a renewal of interest in his music in the 1970s. He died in 2002, making him the only known concert musician who survived from the 19th century into the 21st century.


Leo Ornstein was the son of a Jewish cantor. His uncle was Josef Hofmann, a very famous pianist. Ornstein showed an early talent for the piano, and he went to the St. Petersburg Conservatory at age ten. He studied under Alexander Glazunov. In 1907, his family moved to the US due to severe anti-semitism in Russia.

In the US, Ornstein went to the Institute for Music Art in New York City (today the Juillard School of Music), where he learned from Bertha Fiering Tapper. He met his future wife Pauline Mallét-Provost here. In 1910, Mrs. Tapper accompanied Ornstein on a tour of Europe.

Ornstein gave his first public concert in New York in 1911. He became quite popular, performing his own music as well as the music of other avant-garde composers such Debussy, Schoenberg, Scriabin, Bartok, Kodály, and Albeniz. He was known as one of the foremost representatives of “modernist” or “futurist” music. He performed many modernist pieces from Europe that had never been publically performed in the US before.

Ornstein’s own music was initially not well-received, yet he gained a following. The critic James Huneker called him “the only true-blue, genuine, Futurist composer alive.” [1] The first biography of Ornstein was published in 1918 by Frederick H. Martens: Leo Ornstein: The Man, His Ideas, His Work.

Ornstein’s early music was often dramatic and dissonant. Some of his notable early pieces include Danse Sauvage (Wild Men’s Dance) and Suicide in an Airplane, both written in 1914.

In 1918, Ornstein married the pianist Pauline Mallét-Provost. In 1923, he premiered his piano concerto in Philadelphia. He co-founded the League of Composers and joined its board of directors. He also began to introduce late-romantic elements into his music. He became disillusioned with the trends of the latest modernist music, which he perceived as being often preoccupied with novelty for its own sake. He wanted to focus on writing inherently worthy music, regardless of whether it was perceived as modern or conservative. [2]

In the late 1920s, Ornstein began to withdraw from public appearances. He stopped giving public concerts altogether in 1933. He was quickly forgotten by the public. He founded the Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia, and continued to teach and compose in private. He retired from the school in 1955, while continuing to compose in private. He and his family move to a mobile home in Brownsville, Texas.

In 1970s, Ornstein’s began to regain recognition. A number of LP discs with his music were released.

In 1985, his wife Pauline died and he moved to Wisconsin. She had been his motivator and assistant, so his compositional output decreased. He published his last work, his eighth piano sonata, in 1990. Ornstein died in 2002, at the age of 107. He is the only known concert musician who survived from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. [1]

Musical Style and Legacy

Ornstein wrote in many styles, sometimes combining different styles in the same piece. His earlier music is the most radical and “modernist”, while his music from the 1930s and onward features more Romantic elements. However, he continued to write unique and innovative music, and developed a style of writing music in multiple simultaneous keys or ambiguously approaching keys.

Ornstein’s music was quite popular in the 1920s, then fell into obscurity when he withdrew from public life around 1930. Beginning in the 1970s, his music began to regain popularity, and this trend continues in the 21st century.

Ornstein had small hands, which caused him to feel nervous playing the piano. He later reflected that it was madness for someone with such small hands to try to be a professional pianist. [2]


[1] https://www.allmusic.com/artist/leo-ornstein-mn0001523882

[2] http://leoornstein.net/leo_ornstein.html



Article written by me for Lunyr