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

Spoken to and transcribed by Frank J. Oteri on March 19, 2002

I was doing interviewing in the ’70s and people like Goddard Lieberson at CBS and Oliver Daniel at BMI would say to me: “Whatever happened to Leo Ornstein, the great futurist composer? You really ought to do something about finding him. He’s alive, but no one seems to know where he is.” He had disappeared from the music world, so it was a challenge, which is one thing about oral history: it’s partly fun and partly nerve racking detective work to track someone down to get an interview.

Ornstein had taken himself away from the music world, and he was traveling around in a trailer with his wife Pauline. In the winter, they’d get themselves clear across country to Brownsville, Texas, and they would park their trailor at Sierra Mobile Park, Lot #32, and stay there until the weather changed, and then they’d go clear across country and see their daughter in Kansas City and end up in New Hampshire where they had a place. So, it was difficult to find where he was. But it was even more a matter of making some kind of contact.

I found a nephew, and the nephew said, “I can’t tell you where he is but I’ll put you in touch with his son.” So, at that point, I got in touch with Severo who said, “I don’t think Dad’s going to want to talk to you or anybody else. He hasn’t wanted to do that for a long time. But, we’ll see about it.” Leo, I think, really did not want to start talking to anyone, but Pauline felt that the time had come. They were at that point—both well into their 80s—and I think that she was worried. They both felt that someday something would happen, that the music would be recognized and that they would be back in the world of music. She had great faith, of course, in Leo’s work, and she was worried about the manuscripts as well. So I began to talk to her on the phone. She was a little older than Leo, a couple of years older. She said, “We’ll meet you in Kansas City at our daughter’s place.” Edith [Valentine] lived there. And so we made the appointment. But it was broken. And then we made another appointment for I forget where, but always with a little bit of notice, it wasn’t the right time. And I began to think this is going to be the most difficult interview I’ve ever had to do and that the man is obviously paranoid about talking to someone. Finally, I made an appointment—Severo was then living in Boston—I made an appointment to see them in Boston. In the meantime, there had not been any discussion at all about the music manuscripts or the papers or anything, except for one conversation I had with Pauline in which she said, “What should I do with the manuscripts? They’re in a barn in New Hampshire and the mice are eating them. Some of them are in an advance state of lace. Can you help us?” Well, I’d helped place manuscripts, so I said, “Of course, I can help you.” But I hadn’t even met them yet. I said we’d talk about it later.

So the day came and I left for Boston. I had my tape recorder, which in those days was the latest in technology, a suitcase with a reel-to-reel, and I thought that was really something small you could carry around… And I rang the bell. It was a very nasty February day, and it was about to snow. Sure enough, the granddaughter came to the door with a note. And my heart sank. Oh, no, not again. There was a note from Leo saying, “Sorry. Snow coming. Have to leave before we get snow bound. Have left a few things for you in the dining room.” It’s really a moment I’ll never forget. I walked into the dining room and it was absolutely filled with brown paper bags and boxes of sixty years of music manuscripts. You know how it feels just before it’s going to snow, like time’s standing still, that moment was like that. So there I was sitting with all these music manuscripts, and I still hadn’t set eyes on Leo Ornstein. He certainly was something of a mystery man. I called the Yale Music Librarian and said “How would you like the entire music manuscripts and papers of Leo Ornstein?” And he said, “Of course, it would be fantastic.” And I said, “All you have to do is come with a truck and get it.” It was given to me to place with the understanding that that’s what I would arrange.

Two weeks later, I arrived back at the same door, and this fairly short fellow, with a Russian accent, was at the door bowing and saying, “My deepest apologies. I was working on a trio and in the old days I could remember everything.” (He was known for having an incredible memory.) “But now I was afraid that if I started to talk to somebody after not talking to anybody for so long, I would get very excited, and I would forget my train of musical thinking. But now I have finished that piece and I’m ready to talk.” He started talking to me at the door and he didn’t stop! So that was the first meeting with Leo.

Leo Ornstein fits into the early heroic avant-garde, the first years of Ives, Varèse, Cowell, Rudhyar—that early beginning of the avant-garde that was so shocking. This first group of early modernists has a special place just as the firsts have in most areas. I think the early works, the ones that were innovative at the time (“Danse Sauvage,” “Suicide in an Airplane,” “Three Moods,” etc.) have an historical significance. And I think that Ornstein has a historical significance as a really interesting figure who had the courage not to be pushed into composing further and further away from tradition. He had the self-confidence to go ahead and compose what he felt he needed to. But for me the later works are not as interesting as those early innovative ones where he uses tone-clusters and so forth.

After his manuscripts came to New Haven, I thought I could read through some of the material, but it was too tough for me. There was a very good pianist who was doing his degree recital and he was a terrific reader. William Westney (Bill) went into the materials and started reading through some of the piano works, and he gave a recital in New York and included Ornstein. We produced the first recording, and it included the Quintet and Three Moods. After that, a number of recordings came out. Ornstein was primarily a keyboard composer. And his orchestral works read like they’re by a pianist. I’m not sure if he ever got over that. It’s hard for a concert pianist to become a composer of orchestral music. He once said that the sounds just came into his head, and he wished they’d go away.

For a long time I had thought someone would discover that the real Leo Ornstein is Pauline because one of the interesting things about the early manuscripts is that they were all in her hand. And I tried to get at this when I talked to them. It was some kind of symbiotic relationship they had where he was able to dictate the music to her and she would write it down. She was a musician. It was just amazing. But he was the boss, there’s no doubt about that. She really did what he wanted her to do, because she believed so strongly in his talent. And, when I started corresponding with them, the letters were in her hand. The letters I have from him toward the end of his life were in his hand. After she died, he wrote and said, “I have nothing to live for.” But a few months later he was back composing. He managed to pick himself up and continue.

Leo Ornstein had a quality that was unique. I never saw it in anybody else. He taught himself philosophy, music, art history, aesthetics, current events, world events, several languages, for many, many years, without the need to use it for something, just for his own self-edification, for his own satisfaction, not for teaching anybody, not for making social conversation, just for his own desire for education. He was interested in ideas, philosophical ideas primarily. And he made that very clear from the beginning. He said, “I’m not interested in telling you my biography. Let’s get down to ideas.” Today, we’ve heard so much about contemporary music, that some of the ideas may sound naïve, but most of what he had to say makes a lot of sense and is absolutely sincere. There was only occasionally a word that would come up that would clue you in to the fact that he wasn’t right with the times. Sometimes he’d say “gramophone” instead of “record player,” or he’d say “My dear child…” To him, of course, I was a much younger person.

He once was a child prodigy and the family kept lopping off years whenever they could. They were a rather poor family and they looked to him as the great virtuoso who was going to make a lot of money playing Chopin and Rachmaninoff and Liszt and so forth. And the longer they could keep him a child prodigy the better. So all the books and dictionaries of the time have the birth date a few years off.

I have pictures of him from various stages. In one he must be about 65, but he looked 45. One time, he was getting an honorary doctorate from St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. I went to that; it was a big occasion. He was 95, and he looked wonderful as he came down the aisle in a cap and gown. And to listen to him talk to the students. They were mind-boggled. This man was talking about pre-World War One! He spoke to them very clearly about the horse and buggy, before there were cars, and what New York was like at the turn of the century. One of the things he told me when we talked was, Can you imagine? My father lived to 104 and it’s just an amazing thing. And I wonder about somebody living that long.” Then he lived even longer.

The last letter I have was from age 100 and he wrote, “I’m beginning to feel my age.” And then he wrote rather wistfully, “I always thought there’d be some kind of epiphany in my lifetime but now I know it’s not going to happen.” I thought, meaning that his music would be more fully recognized. I continued to send him a birthday card and holiday greetings and Edith would get in touch with me and say, “Dad sends greetings back.” It was a very nice relationship.

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