The name of Leo Ornstein (1893-2002) is unlikely to be familiar to most musicians and music lovers. Yet, as the editors of this new volume in Music of the United States of America (MUSA) note at the start of their introductory essay, he was "between 1910 and 1920 ... perhaps the most notorious musician in America. His fame rested on his skill as a pianist who played both the standard concert repertoire and the latest from Europe, as well as his own radical compositions, which shocked, bewildered, and excited audiences" (p. xi). Indeed, Ornstein's case is a salutary reminder of the degree to which the path from celebrity and notoriety to anonymity and invisibility is not a phenomenon restricted solely to our own post-Warholian age of media hype and fifteen-minute fame. By the time he was twenty-five, Ornstein "was already the subject of a full-length biography" (by no less an author than Frederick Martens--Leo Ornstein: The Man, His Ideas, His Work [New York: Breitkopf & Hartel, 1918; reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975]) and "was compared favorably to Schoenberg and Stravinsky" (p. xi). Yet although "Ornstein never abandoned composing, at least during his first 100 years" (p. xxiv), between roughly 1930 and 1975 he in effect disappeared from public view, to the extent that in 1977 Vivian Perlis had to travel to a mobile home park in Brownsville, Texas, to conduct a videotape interview with the composer. "As the crew prepared for the 'shoot,' elderly people straggled out of nearby trailers, wondering whether a murder had been committed!" (Perlis five years previously had conducted audio interviews with Ornstein at his son's house in Boston; see Vivian Perlis and Libby Van Cleve, Composers' Voices from Ives to Ellington: An Oral History of American Music [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005], 78-79.)
This is not the place to conduct a postmortem on the reasons for Ornstein's descent into obscurity--indeed, a conclusive coroner's report will be readily available when Michael Broyles's and Denise Von Glahn's authoritative biography of the composer is published in the near future; but it is the place (if one were needed) to praise Broyles, Von Glahn, and the MUSA team for having the courage to shepherd into print, for the first time, Ornstein's extraordinary Quintette for Piano and Strings, op. 92, written in the mid-1920s. The work was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and first performed in Philadelphia on 1 January 1928. The concert, sponsored by the Society for Contemporary Music, also featured music by Maurice Ravel (Tzigane) and Bela Bartok (the Second Violin Sonata and String Quartet), with the latter composer, then undertaking an American tour, in attendance. Subsequently, there were further performances in New York and elsewhere through the 1930s, with Ornstein on each occasion tackling the formidably difficult piano part. Possibly as a result of the work's somewhat hybrid style (discussed below), reviews were mixed, running the gamut from the laudatory--"a work of genuine importance"--to the painfully damning--"a bad caricature of Ernest Bloch" (pp. xxvii-xxviii). Ornstein's own thoughts on the piece, penned possibly as late as the 1970s, are interesting for both their detachment and their accuracy: "The Quintette is not a polite piece ... [but] it is what I heard.... Possibly it might have been less blunt and emotionally more reserved, but if one does not sense its almost brutal emotional directness, then I have indeed failed.... While the rhetoric of the Quintette may be parochial I hope that whatever inner light there is will touch a universal chord in the listener" (quoted on p. xxviii).
As suggested above, the Quintette is characterized to a considerable degree by stylistic eclecticism, and was as a consequence "criticized both as being insufficiently modern--that is, ultramodern--and too far outside the bounds of traditional structural principles" (p. xxvii). Another, less circuitous, way of describing it would be as a watered-down successor to the highly dissonant and disruptive works, such as the Danse sauvage, that had first brought Ornstein to critical attention in the 1910s. But this would be uncharitable: Ornstein himself believed that in the earlier period he had "pushed his dissonant style ... to the brink of disorder." Accordingly, he "simply drew back and said, 'beyond that lies complete chaos.'" In doing so, he "turned from a more 'experimental' to a more 'expressive' style--the terms are his own" (p. xxiv). The end result, throughout the Quintette, is music that is uniformly lyrical in its phrasing, but rather less so in its melodies; there is little counterpoint, but the harmonies are frequently acerbic; much use is made of ostinatos, and the texture is often thick. Consequently, for less committed listeners there is a danger that the work--which lasts well over thirty minutes--will outstay its welcome, though for those having any sympathy whatsoever with early modernist tendencies, this is rather less likely.
The format of the Quintette's publication accords with the MUSA house style. The work is introduced through a substantial, twenty-seven-page essay by the editors, which deals in considerable detail with such topics as Ornstein's early career, his compositional styles, and the origin and musical characteristics of the piece. The immaculately printed score of the Quintette occupies 224 pages, and is complemented by illustrations of both the composer (two photographic portraits from the inter-war period) and pages from the holograph. The closing apparatus, meanwhile, includes full notes on the source materials and the editorial method, together with a critical commentary--notable for its music examples--and bibliography. Performance parts are available separately. In sum, this thirteenth volume of the MUSA series both extends and complements the terra incognita outlined by the majority of its predecessors, and provides a valuable new entree to our growing understanding of the ultra-modernist movement in America, and the broader musical life of the decade that nurtured it.
University of Southampton