Leo Ornstein: The Last of the Original 20th Century Mavericks

LEO ORNSTEIN: As a composer, I rather relished the anonymity. As a performer, I rather suffered a good deal because of a certain amount of emphasis that was always placed on personality. That is why I developed something of a touch of resentment, that very often I felt that the personality of the performer helped cloud the actual performance or actually helped interfere with the listener whose attention should have been entirely on the music. How you can eliminate that, of course—you can’t eradicate yourself. I suppose you can play an instrument or the orchestra can play with a screen in front, but then the screen itself would be a hindrance of a kind, so that all in all, as you see, you can’t entirely evade the issue. One of the reasons, frankly, that I finally gave up playing in public was that I just wanted a certain amount of privacy. As a composer, I could have that because if the work was performed once in a while—unless I particularly wanted to hear it—very often, I wasn’t even at the performance—that may have been one of the real attractions, eventually my giving up concertizing.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Even when you were concertizing, you were always looking for places where you could have a certain amount of privacy, weren’t you?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes. That was one of the reasons why as soon as Pauline and I were married—and I suppose you know that within a month we will have been married fifty-nine years. And then we were engaged for about three or four years before we were married. So we’ve known each other for a full lifetime. Almost as soon as we were married—we were married in December, on the 13th—it was a Friday. Now you can see how little that combination can frighten one, or need frighten one. We spent the following summer in the mountains. Pauline went to a little village that she knew, and there was a little quaint house that was up on a hill that must have been at least a hundred years or more than that, possibly a hundred and fifty years old. They put in the necessary equipment for us to be able to spend the summer. Around July, August we were talking about where we would settle. Obviously, we were living in suitcases all the time, in hotels and wandering around loosely across the country, back and forth, endless numbers of times. I finally decided that I would try it out, anyway, so we found a place that I could buy, about eighty acres of land, right adjacent to my father-in-law, and the place, and went into the woods about a quarter of a mile or possibly nearer to half a mile, it might have been. It was a beautiful grove of pines and hemlocks, enormous old trees. They were perfectly vast. It would have taken two or three people with their arms spread out fully to have been able to encircle the tree. They cut down a few of the smaller trees, and then we found a very quaint character there… I told him what I wanted—the size and everything else—and he then had the lumber—they had to take the lumber right through the woods, and they tied the lumber—the horse—that was just prior to the automobile. Of course, there were no roads at all. One spot in the trees, that we could find a location, and they carried the lumber, dragged the lumber out there, and he finally put a stone foundation. There were always enormous boulders and stones all over New Hampshire, as you know. When it was built, they cut down some trees, and they put the grand piano on its side, and two horses—they widened it enough so the two horses drove the thing up to the studio, where they finally got it in. It was a very hazardous experience because they didn’t make any road at all; they just cut down some of the trees. Now and then the wheels would get up on a little stump, but somehow they got it in. And then later, the fall, we began to build, started building the house. At that time, obviously, my finances were limited, and we put up this small house first, and then later on, as we seemed to prosper, we put on a very large addition, and then finally we put on still a third addition.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Were you prospering from your concert career?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes. It was obviously—yes, surely.

VIVIAN PERLIS: So you came in and out of this isolated place?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes. We had some really extraordinary experiences, too: I was playing a series of concerts with the Boston Symphony. They used to make a trip to Washington or Baltimore and Philadelphia, and we had to go out to the mountains—something about questions of building—some problems they wanted to resolve. And we got caught in a storm. My evening clothes were with me because you were going to get on the train, and then that storm came. Of course, you could only navigate on snowshoes, you understand, the snow got so deep. We forded the river because, of course, it was frozen. And then the next night we were in Washington.

VIVIAN PERLIS: It was a very nerve-wracking kind of existence, wasn’t it?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes. Well, that way—we’ve had rather an interesting life that way because we’ve done a great many things that had nothing whatever to do with my profession. Through my father-in-law, I became somewhat interested in farming. When we were living in Philadelphia, I bought some land there, some twenty-five or thirty miles out of Philadelphia, a place called Chalfont. I wanted the children to have some experience in a rural setting because I used to see them once in a while with their nursemaid. We had an apartment off the Rittenhouse Square, and I’d see them just going around like little animals in a cage. I said, no, let’s try that, and I bought this land, and we put up a small barn, with a few horses and a few cows.

VIVIAN PERLIS: This was during the time that you had the Ornstein School in Philadelphia?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, and I was still traveling, and we had just a terribly full life, at least as far as just the externals were concerned because I was still traveling, and then people would block up, waiting to have their lessons, and the hallway was just impossible, with twenty people sitting there, waiting to get into the room because I had to postpone so many of their lessons when I was traveling.

VIVIAN PERLIS: But it was not only the desire for privacy and the rigors of this kind of life. Performing was not a pleasure for you.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Essentially, really, performing was never anything like the center of my life in any way, no. I must admit that, of course, it was very remunerative at a certain period, when I happened to be quite a good deal in the limelight, of course. I was then beginning to get very substantial fees and so on. Obviously, as the children came along, we needed certain financial—you know, we just needed things to be able to live. But I was never really particularly interested in a pianistic career. No, I was not.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Did you suffer terribly from—concern about performances and nervous—

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, I was particularly concerned with that, too—possibly more so than some people. Very strangely enough, I’ve never been able to get used to nightlife of any kind. As you know, performing—of course, you only began to function about eight or eight thirty, and then afterwards, there were all these people that wanted to drag you around. I never could get used to it. As a matter of fact, I always looked forward longingly to the summer, when the concert season came to an end, and I could live a perfectly quiet country life. Even now I get up very early. We go to bed very early. I get up about five o’clock and very often come out there and look at the sky and get reacquainted with some of the stars. I enjoy the morning. The morning means a great deal to me. It opens up things, and I’m still hoping, wondering what ideas might come into my head, whereas in the evening I begin to wilt. I’m not working. I don’t work at night. I never have been able to work at night. As a matter of fact, I find that if I cannot write in the morning, I cannot write, and that is that. In other words, you see, we’re coming back over to the same thing: I don’t need the sort of exotic stimulus of some kind or another. I never have. Either a musical idea came into your head, or it didn’t. And why it came into my head, I do not know; and why it did not come into my head, I do not know. I simply do not pretend to understand it. All I can say is I can only be grateful that some things have come into my head that at least I thought were worthwhile putting down, and then other times I was left absolutely bare.

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