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

VIVIAN PERLIS: If somebody says to you: “How—what was it that, as a teenager, that you began to compose music—not only compose, but compose music that nobody else had ever—”

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, I haven’t the faintest idea, my dear child, because I was brought up, of course, in the most orthodox way you can imagine. I had heard almost nothing at all of new music. I think I new one or two pieces of Debussy and a piece of Max Reger, and that was really, actually, literally among the so-called current music that I knew. Otherwise, I had been brought up on the classics, pure and simple. I remember that when I first began to hear the inklings of the “Danse Sauvage” and the “Impressions of Notre Dame,” I happened to be in Vienna. I was going to play some for Leschetizky. I began to hear these things. I remember that actually the start of the “Impressions of Notre Dame,” I began to put down the notes. The trunk had just been put in. There was no piano or anything. The trunk had been put in, and I had some music paper that I always carried with me, and I began to notate that. Then the man that had the hotel reserved the upper floor, and part of the upper floor for himself. He had a grand piano. They said he was away on his holiday in Switzerland or in the Tyrol, but they gave me the key, so I could go up there. And that was the first time that I heard, that I played the “Impressions of Notre Dame” for myself, and then made a few changes, but rather few. I was very fortunate to have heard it completely. That’s what I—when we were talking before about how some things come into your consciousness that are perfectly clear-cut, and then, of course, it’s child’s play to put it on. But then other things are very ambiguous and very tentative, and nothing is really entirely shaped. And, you see, music has no meaning at all—we’re coming to something that has interested me a great deal—I think until you frame a work of art—in other words, until you can find it within what we call a frame—it has no meaning at all. It’s actually just sprawls all over. It’s shapeless. And therefore it doesn’t interest us. It’s only until we give it a concrete, specific shape that it becomes of some intrinsic meaning to us, of some value to us. That means that we have to finally frame it. We have to confine it.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Is the confining it the writing out of it?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, of course, it’s the organism—and each piece demands its own organism. In the Classical period, they were perfectly willing to accept a formula that had been established, but today, when we speak of a sonata, it’s so vague today because it becomes so personalized, they’re just vague indications of the so-called traditional sonata form. Almost a personal invention, a personal arrangement…

VIVIAN PERLIS: I see that there are some sketch materials here, and there are things on the piano and so forth—you’re working on a symphony now.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes. I keep the notes separately, but I tell you what happens. It’s interesting. As I’m writing—for instance, there will be a line or two left unused, and I say to Pauline: “Quickly, throw me a piece of paper.” But I’m so afraid I’m going to lose it that I put the continuation in between another piece, just because there happens to be a little space there. And then quickly, of course, I get it together and dictate it to her so that it will get the continuity. But that’s nothing at all. That’s why you will sometimes see something, and then you see something that obviously doesn’t belong. It’s only because there was some paper left that was open, and I quickly put it down. You see, my memory is nothing as reliable as it used to be. Oh, nowheres near. I must say that I must have had quite a fairly good, decent memory because I was able to remember a piece of music that would last twenty minutes, or twenty-five. I played a sonata in public, oh, for two years. I gave it probably fifty performances. And I haven’t yet gotten to write down a note because I simply was so crowded for time, but I remembered it. And, do you know, then I went to other pieces, and I never have been able to—then, of course, I forgot it, and I cannot recapture it.

VIVIAN PERLIS: So actually there are a couple of piano sonatas, aren’t there, that have never been captured.

LEO ORNSTEIN: What really happened was this: that as you thought of the music, it was also relegated to your memory at the same time, so that by the time I finished thinking the music, I really had it memorized. That’s why I was able to play it. With the “Three Moods [Anger, Peace, Joy],” for a long time I played them again and again and again, and for a long time I never put them down until finally I was cornered.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Those were written in—

LEO ORNSTEIN: Oh, I don’t know the year.

VIVIAN PERLIS: It was before the First World War.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Oh, yes. Right during the First World War.

VIVIAN PERLIS: And they were not written down, I believe, until—

LEO ORNSTEIN: That’s it, for a long time.

VIVIAN PERLIS: …1940-something.

LEO ORNSTEIN: It’s possible. It’s very possible it might not have been. And then I was forced—I think somebody was going to play it or something, and then, of course—

VIVIAN PERLIS: For a concert in memory of Paul Rosenfeld.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes. Then, of course, I was simply forced to.