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

LEO ORNSTEIN: I adore Stravinsky‘s music, and I like some of the Schoenberg things, I like some Bartók. Some of the things I care for less; some of the things I feel are labored, but that’s neither here nor there. Some of the things are just first-class, first-class. Oh, no, indeed—as a matter of fact, my leanings are very much more towards the newer things, obviously, because they’re very much more intriguing. The other things become somewhat—one gets somewhat blasé, you know?—although I will say about the music of Bach that I never, never find anything there that I could call bad. I found a lot of Beethoven blasé, and a lot of Schumann and Chopin, yes. But something—most of the music—some of those cantatas absolutely are utterly indescribable. And you talk about lack of self-consciousness—I suppose that Bach is one of the most eminent examples of a great, great artist utterly un-self conscious. To him, it was just his profession. It was his trade. He had to just produce a cantata on such-and-such a Sunday, and he sat down and just simply wrote the music down. That it happened to come out something so utterly unbelievable was something that went way outside of him. Actually, it was just a daily chore. He knew that he was expected to produce that cantata for a certain holiday or a certain Sunday service, and then, as I said, then came something that was out of his ken altogether. Then he began to hear these things. He never could have made those things. First of all, my dear child, he never could have written a tenth of the works that he has done if he had to laboriously try to put them together and try to guess: “Let me see, maybe this combination should go with that.” My dear child, he would have spent a lifetime merely just trying to decide which combination to use. But these things just came to him. I imagine he wrote the things down practically as quickly as you and I write a letter… Now, let’s talk about the St. Matthew Passion.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Is that the greatest work?

LEO ORNSTEIN: I believe that that is probably one of the greatest works of art that I know. I don’t know all music by any means, but whatever music I do know, I keep coming back to that.

VIVIAN PERLIS: You had mentioned it before. Why particularly that work instead of, say, the B Minor Mass?

LEO ORNSTEIN: There is something about the combinations of the sounds which I can’t explain, that just hold me absolutely. I think that probably the two greatest pieces—if you were to ask me, really, I think I’d be satisfied to say that the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue and the St. Matthew Passion are probably, are certainly two of my most favorite pieces of music. I could hear that just hundreds and hundreds of times, and I can hear anybody else play the Chromatic Fantasy. I’ve played it myself hundreds of times. And if I had the facility still with me, I would still play it one hundred times more.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Have you thought about the qualities that are in those two works…

LEO ORNSTEIN: No, I wish I could. I wish it were possible to retranslate a musical sound into a literary form, but I cannot do it. There have been a few writers that have attempted to do that, and what has really happened is this, curiously enough: The result has been that the interest they have for you is not so much that they give you an estimate of the work. What you then become interested [in] is to see what the work did to them, and that can be interesting enough. But if I were to try to simply say by what I’ve read that I now could guess what the work is like, of course, it’s obviously fatal. Supposing you had gone to a concert and you heard a piece of music that stirred you tremendously. You went to work and wrote your impressions and everything else and so on, and you wrote your critique. Now I, reading that, would be absolutely put to it to be able to say: “Oh, yes, that’s the piece that you wrote about,” if I heard it. In other words, how can you describe, for instance, a series of chords connected up—

VIVIAN PERLIS: The problem in writing about music is you cannot, really.

LEO ORNSTEIN: No, you can only give your own general impressions, and by that time they become, really, three-quarters literary rather than musical.

VIVIAN PERLIS: I didn’t mean that in terms of translating the work into literary terms. I meant if you had thought about, even now or earlier, in thinking about the qualities that are in those works, and whether they have any influence on what you would like to achieve in your own music.

LEO ORNSTEIN: I will say this, that I am moved by that music as I’m almost never moved by too many other things I listen to, that I’ve heard. For instance, one of the things that fascinates me are the recitatives. There’s a sort of a wonderful, almost a natural kind of urgency about this person that has to tell you—like someone who buttonholes you and can no longer contain himself and has to tell you about some event or something that’s on his mind. The urgency of that has almost never been equaled in music—besides, of course, the various set pieces that the thing is made out of.

VIVIAN PERLIS: It’s a quality of vitality.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, I suppose it is that. But also that isn’t enough, too, because there’s a certain amount of vitality going over to the piano and thinking officially—there’s vitality there, too, but the question is to what extent is it really a great aesthetic experience. You see, I’m finding out that so much today that is going on is of that nature. Those are all intellectualizations of some kind of another. Of course, any intellectualization is interesting enough, but I’m talking about art, I’m talking about aesthetics, I’m talking about getting an aesthetic experience. And if a piece of music does not give me an aesthetic experience, no amount of ingenious rhetoric about it has the slightest effect on me. For instance, Bach obviously was motivated by the most incredible kind of religious impulse that is almost not understandable by our modern generation. Now, it doesn’t matter to me that that was the thing that triggered him. But, you see, I’m interested now, as a listener in the twentieth century—I only respond to the music. I’m not the slightest bit concerned—no, not concerned—yes, it’s interesting as a biographical explanation, if you wish, as a little sort of side remark, but intrinsically…

VIVIAN PERLIS: It’s not a religious experience.

LEO ORNSTEIN: No, of course, not. That’s it. I am absolutely moved by the music, just pure and simple. And even if you were to eliminate the entire subject matter and never told me anything about it, it wouldn’t make the slightest difference to me. The music still is the thing that moves me. What we are talking about, you understand, is really that incredible something that he heard, those combinations that he just put together, the continuity of the line he heard. It’s all these tremendous things that he heard. Sometimes you simply say why that man should have been so incredibly gifted, so everlastingly gifted as to be able to call out one thing after another. You would simply say enough. Now, why couldn’t some other person have been given some of it, no?

VIVIAN PERLIS: There’s a certain amount of luck involved in terms of the fact that we have the music of Bach at all. Now, do you consider that’s true, that there’s a possibility that his music could have been lost to the world if, indeed, there had not been someone who came afterwards who saved it?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Oh, sure. It just results, again [from] one of those incredible coincidences, that Mendelssohn happened to be at some household, the thing happened to be on the desk where he took a look at it, and having the music, liked it and said: “What is that? What is that?”—and, of course, looked into it further…

VIVIAN PERLIS: It is possible, which is a frightening thought, that the world could exist easily without knowing what they had missed, without the music of Bach.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, of course.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Are there other people like that?

LEO ORNSTEIN: It’s possible that there is some art that has just gone by the wayside. I tell you, today, with all the research and everything else, it’s not likely. It’s not likely. Of course, I can’t say it positively, but it’s possible that, for instance, that even if Mendelssohn had not come into the room and seen it on the desk, that later on some other person might have stumbled on some of the things and had the music acumen to realize at once what it is that was there. Or else, yes, it might have vanished and simply never appeared in our musical consciousness. Just think what we would have missed.