Leo Ornstein: Composer's Profile

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Leo Ornstein (1893-2002) was once a celebrated American composer in the early 20th-century, often regarded as the "poster boy" for the avant-garde in American music. Music textbooks are quick to cite Henry Cowell as the progenitor of the tone cluster in art-music, but credit should be given to Ornstein, who made innovative applications of tone clusters in his early piano pieces of the 1910s. Although considered an American composer, Ornstein was born in Ukraine and studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He established a controversial but famous repuation in America both as a pianist and as a radically modern composer. But after 1920, Ornstein slowly abandoned his efforts in the avant-garde and his idiom became relaxed and more conservative, angering many of the modernist cohorts who admired his music. In the 1930's Ornstein and his wife founded a music school in Philadelphia and he devoted his time to teaching until the 1950's. Throughout these decades Ornstein's music and his very name became marginalized and he seemed to vanish from the music world entirely until the 1970's. After turning his back on the avant-garde, Ornstein composed music in an accessible style reminiscent of Rachmaninov with occasional forays into biting dissonance. His last composition, the Eighth Piano Sonata, was finished at the age of 97, but it is his early experimental works that show the indelible stamp of genius.