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

VIVIAN PERLIS: You were what would have been considered a musical prodigy from the time you were a boy in Russia.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes. You asked an interesting question about this as far as my family was concerned. They, of course, didn’t understand it at all because I was brought up in the usual fashion, that I was this wonder child, and they saw visions of my bringing in huge sums of money, playing these Liszt rhapsodies and the Chopin ballades and scherzi and all the standard works. Then suddenly I veered off and went into a channel that they did not understand and that obviously was not going to lead to fabulous sums of money at all. So the family, as far as they were concerned, they didn’t understand what happened to me at all. When I actually gave up playing, they couldn’t figure it out.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Were you helping to support—you were the twelfth in a family?

LEO ORNSTEIN: There were twelve, but there were only seven that survived. Well, I was helping my family.

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: He’s a twin.

VIVIAN PERLIS: What about Mrs. Bertha Fiering Tapper? She was more to you than a piano teacher.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, yes, of course. I lived there a great deal of the time, and I spent many of the summers there. They had an extra little studio there that was given over to me, and that’s where I practiced and wrote some of the things. I think, myself, that she understood the earlier things and was always enchanted by those. But I think that when I went off into a category which she wasn’t able to follow at all, I think she substituted then her deep affection for me, but I don’t think she really followed what was going on. By that time she was an elderly woman, and she was unable to overcome her traditional indoctrination and training that she had had. As I told you, even I had an awful time to reconcile myself to those things because, as I said, I simply thought of them as things to enhance just that one individual thing that I would be writing. I didn’t see it at all as a system for writing music at all. And I was very careful. Even as young as I was, even at fourteen, at fifteen I already understood the grave danger of bogging yourself down in your own style. It’s very easy to do that. It’s very easy to imitate your own style. Then I realized how dangerous it was, and I almost made an effort to see that I avoided stylizing myself. And that is why you have these large variations, “the three moods” of the quintet, get it? Two totally different ends of the stick, you might say. And I’ve enjoyed that very much. Of course, it has been involuntary because I couldn’t command what I heard. What I heard was this, or what I heard was that.

VIVIAN PERLIS: The early works that you did that were considered so far out—

LEO ORNSTEIN: I suppose they were at that time.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Your early works had such a reaction on people and on critics and on your friends and on your family, I’m sure, because they were so different from what your life had been. What did people think about those works? What did Pauline think?

LEO ORNSTEIN: I don’t know, frankly, that we talked about my writing too much. She learned to play some of the things. As a matter of fact, I think she kept it like a secret. I never heard her practice these things, and she never would play the things for me, so actually I can’t tell you. The response varied, of course, a great deal. Some people were very much excited when they heard these things and they were stimulated; others were terribly angered, for whatever reason. I cannot explain. Some would possibly be frightened by this onslaught of sound that seemed utterly unrestrained. I told you that I had moments also myself of wondering whether I wasn’t exposing things, some deep, hidden feelings that we almost dare not face ourselves.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Do you remember what you thought of some of those works?

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: Yes. I think the things that I first understood were things that moved a little slowly, the slow movements. I remember The Three Moods, the middle one, Grief, was very much more accessible to me. But, on the other hand, when I learned to play them, I got a most terrific satisfaction out of playing Anger. I could get everything in my system out of it. It was a real sensation to play it!

VIVIAN PERLIS: But you were already an Ornstein fan, so to speak.

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: Yes.

VIVIAN PERLIS: You went to school together.

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: Yes, we went to school together. I knew him ever since he came to this country. I remember when he had his lesson just before me.

VIVIAN PERLIS: You had the same teacher.

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: Yes, we had the same teacher, and then we went, both of us, to the Institute. Of course, he kept making me furiously mad because every time I was up against it, he could just walk in and it didn’t bother him at all. I remember I had been slaving over a Mozart concerto that I was supposed to play with orchestra. I found it very difficult. I had worked weeks on it. We had an examination at the Institute, and I had the music with me. Dr. Damrosch hadn’t come in yet, and we were all talking together. He said, “Let me look at it.” And he put it up on the thing, and rattled it off as if he’d practiced it all his life. I was just raging to think what work I had had to put in on that. And the same thing with some of the ear training examinations, and all the things that I put down that I was fairly sure of, but with difficulty, and he just handed in his paper as soon as the teacher had finished dictating.