Ornstein was recognized as a piano prodigy at an early age. He studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory under Alexander Glazunov but in 1906 was forced to flee with his family to America where he studied at what would one day become the Juilliard School. He started giving concerts in 1911 and within a few years achieved notoriety, not only as a gifted pianist performing works of Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, Schoenberg, and Bartók for the first time in the U.S., but also through performances of his own radical “futurist” compositions which created a furor. A 1918 biography and analysis of his work was written by Frederick H. Martens when he was still in his twenties.
He was internationally known as a virtuoso pianist, and as a composer he was ranked with Stravinsky and Schoenberg. In the late 1920s, however, at the height of a successful concert career, he abruptly ceased performing. A few years later, together with his wife Pauline Mallet-Prevost, he formed a music school in Philadelphia where he taught until retiring in the mid-1950s. After that he devoted his time entirely to composing. His final work, an Eighth Piano Sonata, was composed in 1990 when he was in his late 90s, making him perhaps the oldest active composer. That work and others from his early years will be performed by Marc-Andre Hamelin on March 26 at Columbia‘s Miller Theatre.
Although best known for a collection of radical early works, throughout his life he wrote in diverse styles. Such stylistic eclecticism confounded his listeners which, in turn, may explain why he chose to retire from the concert stage in order to follow his muse away from public pressure and scrutiny.
Having thus shunned the music world it is not surprising that the music world quickly began to ignore him, and as time passed most people forgot about him altogether. Then in the 1970s, along with a revival of interest in American music of the early part of the century, he was “rediscovered.” Since then a dozen or more records have been produced and many more works have been published. In 1975 he received the Marjorie Peabody Waite Award from the National Academy of Arts and Letters and The National Institute of Arts and Letters. His music continues to be performed and recorded both in the U.S. and abroad, and a biography is currently being written by the musicologists Michael Broyles and Denise Von Glahn. His manuscripts are held at the Yale Music Library; much of his music has been edited and published by his son under the Poon Hill Press imprimatur.
He is survived by his daughter Edith Valentine of De Pere, Wisconsin, his son, Severo Ornstein of Woodside, California, five grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.