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

13. Heritage and Influence

LEO ORNSTEIN: I had a letter from the committee that was giving a formal dinner on the fiftieth birthday of Albert Einstein, and I was asked whether I would write a piece for the occasion. I, of course, was very pleased to do it and said that I would try to write something. They asked whether I would also play the piano part. I rehearsed it with a violinist and then we played it. There were some speeches, and then, in the middle, they announced that this piece had been written in honor of Albert Einstein. The dinner was given at the Commodore Hotel in New York. I remember they were very much pleased.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Why did you call it Hebraic Fantasy?

LEO ORNSTEIN: I don’t know. It seemed a logical thing to do, in view of the antecedents of Einstein.

VIVIAN PERLIS: You have used the Hebraic modes and sounds

LEO ORNSTEIN: It’s a very appealing mode, and it seems to come fairly naturally to me. I saw no reason at all why I should not use a mode that came so naturally to me.

VIVIAN PERLIS: That comes from your early years in Russia.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, I imagine that undoubtedly it does have something to do with some hereditary thing, the whole earlier life and earlier training. The influences that we live under are influences that are constant before us. They do not cease from morning until night. Everything that we look at, every person that we talk to, every thought that we think ourselves, actually modifies us, so that we are under their influence perpetually. Right now, you realize that there’s an unconscious influence going on between all of us right here. We may not be able to put it into concrete words, but actually every incident in life and every occurrence leaves immediately some kind of influence on you, unmistakably—particularly as a child, in the formative period, those influences were probably even greater on you.

VIVIAN PERLIS: I remember you told me once that there was one memory that stayed with you for so long.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, there’s a lifetime. I’d never been away from home as a child. At about the age of eight or so, I was taken to St. Petersburg. I played with some committee, and I was accepted as a student. Two or three days afterward, I was enrolled, and I was going to stay there for the winter. My father sent me back to a little town in the Ukraine called Kremenchuk. I had a period of adjustment to make devastating alone and this homesickness. It left an unbearable mark on me. There was a very curious coincidence. It was just at the beginning of the war between Russia and Japan. There were innumerable cars, which really amounted to cattle cars, where soldiers were being put into, for the trip up to the front. There were these thousands and thousands of young people and their wives and children, saying goodbye to them as they were leaving. It was a very curious coincidence. But I don’t believe that I have ever in my life had such an emotional upheaval as that was, the departure of my father, and this unbelievable melancholic state came over me. I had an awful time until nature took over and, little by little, I began to adjust. And then the memory of that acute moment was beginning to fade away a little bit more. I tell you, how grateful we have to be for the element of forgetfulness. If we did not have that, if we really could remember the state, I don’t believe that we would be able to survive. This curious thing that happens, that time does to us is one of the most interesting things altogether. It’s some kind of a curious, pervasive barrier between us and some former incident. It seems to just blur things. Even if you want to hold onto that moment that that you may experience, it’s impossible to do so because little by little your memory begins to fade, and the incident itself, the agony of the incident, gets less and less and less and less—although there is a residue that you never can escape. Even at my age today, I always—towards evening—am inclined to have a certain kind of a momentary feeling that I’m sure is associated with that period. I know that for many years afterward I would always light a light to try to avoid that period between darkness and light. I suppose it helped in some way to lessen the awful feeling.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Was one of those periods of time that might have been difficult for you when you decided to stop performing—the world talked about—was there a nervous fatigue involved?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Oh, no, no. Much of the decision to really give up concertizing and get rid of the burden of traveling and everything else was primarily dictated by my wanting very much more time for my writing.