Leo Ornstein | Poems of 1917

« I stood high upon the agony of the living and looked upon men, upon the pity of men who had love and who cast love away. This year, I was a man and looked about me. And I saw my brothers and my sisters, they who in all the common blackness of their lot had only love, and who hated each other. And the laughter of our Prison was clear to me. So the years of all my life shall be years of my sorrow. » Waldo Frank

The Poems of 1917, Op. 41, stands as one of the most unremittingly bleak compositions in the entire piano literature. Written by the American (born in Ukraine -then Russia-) composer Leo Ornstein during the height of World War I, each of its ten short movements memorializes a friend of Ornstein who lost their life during the War. More than an elegy, the piece is a harrowing depiction of the horrors of the war, as well as a protest against the mechanized carnage that killed on an unprecedented scale. Dense clusters of harmony as well as maddening rhythmic repetition produce passages of eerie, troubled tranquility as well as passages of all-out pianistic onslaught. Any glimmer of hope that appears is quickly crushed, and the cycle ends suddenly in a savage and cynical conclusion. Source

The ten brief Poems of 1917 are dedicated to an outstanding pianist-composer, Leopold Godowsky. The original publication is prefaced by a text created expressly for the music by the American poet and social reformer Waldo Frank (1889–1967). ‘The men and women were angry together, and rended one another’, Frank wrote; ‘I stood high upon the agony of the living and looked upon men, upon the pity of men who had love and who cast love away. […] So all the years of my life shall be years of my sorrow.’  Source

Poems of 1917

  • I. No Man’s Land
  • II. The Sower of Despair
  • III. The Orient in Flanders
  • IV. The Wrath of the Despoiled
  • V. Night Broods over the Battlefield
  • VI. Dirge of the Trenches
  • VII. Song behind the Lines
  • III. The Battle
  • IX. The Army at Prayer
  • X. Dance of the Dead

Mostly in an ABA design, the Poems of 1917 inhabit a variety of moods. No 1, ‘No Man’s Land’ (Andante espressivo), is bleakly elegiac and the relentless tourbillions of No 2, ‘The Sower of Despair’, belie its Moderato marking. No 3, ‘The Orient in Flanders’ (Andantino), retains a hint of the chinoiserie of Op 39, in stark contrast with the anguish of No 4, ‘The Wrath of the Despoiled’, Sostenuto (molto appassionato), which opens out to six staves to accommodate the chordal expanses of its closing bars. No 5, ‘Night Brooding over the Battlefield’ (Moderato e misterioso), suggests another parallel for Ornstein’s music—that of Leoš Janácek—though whether Ornstein knew any of Janácek’s music at this point is not known. No 6, ‘A Dirge of the Trenches’ (Lento), returns to the troubled tranquillity of No 1, its appassionato middle section revealing the torment that lies behind it. The apparent inevitability of the falling patterns in No 7, ‘Song behind the Lines’ (Andante con moto e malinconioso), may suggest the bleak futility of war despite the title; and there’s no relief in the poco più mosso middle section. The eighth of the Poems, ‘The Battle’, marked Allegro e molto appassionato, is the most extensive of them, generating an unremitting volley of chromatic chords, which No 9, ‘Army at Prayer’ (Allegro, ma non troppo), initially seems to relieve, until recurrent patterns of triplets take over the texture. Finally, the bitter ‘Dance of the Dead’, No 10, Vivo (con fuoco), brings an acidic conclusion to these disquieting miniatures.Source

Poems of 1917 are part of my iTunes March Studio Playlist that you can listen to here.

Leo Ornstein

Leo Ornstein was an American experimental composer and pianist of the early twentieth century. He was born on December 11, 1892 in Kremenchuk, a large town in the Ukrainian province of Poltava, then under Imperial Russian rule. His performances of works by avant-garde composers and his own innovative and even shocking pieces made him a cause célèbre on both sides of the Atlantic. Source

Ornstein was the first important composer to make extensive use of the tone cluster. As a pianist, he was considered a world-class talent. By the mid-1920s, he had walked away from his fame and soon disappeared from popular memory. Though he gave his last public concert before the age of forty, he continued writing music for another half-century and beyond. Largely forgotten for decades, he was rediscovered in the mid-1970s. Ornstein completed his eighth and final piano sonata in September 1990 at the age of ninety-four, making him the oldest published composer in history at the time (a mark since passed by Elliott Carter).Source

Ornstein, age nineteen, was in the front rank of concert pianists before the public. When, in 1913, he began to include his music in his programs, he was labelled “futurist” by both his friends and enemies. He was called “radical,” “ultramodern,” “demoniacal,” and audiences were appalled but spellbound by his performances. Ornstein became the center of raging musical argument, here and abroad. Source

From as far back as Ornstein can recall, he was a musical prodigy. When he was ten, Josef Hofmann heard him, and, soon afterward, the young boy auditioned for Alexander Glazunov at the Petrograd Conservatory. Ornstein was faced with a serious dilemma at the entrance examination -when he began his prepared pieces, he discovered that the piano, although in tune, was tuned a half-step lower than the piano at home, and his sensitive ear was bothered by this. His solution was to transpose the entire program on the spot. At first, young Ornstein was homesick and lonely at the Conservatory, but his incredible keyboard facility soon made him a favorite at the salons of Petrograd, and he became involved in the musical life which surrounded him. Ornstein’s professional career began during this time. He worked as accompanist and opera coach to help earn his keep at the Conservatory. Source

In 1907 Ornstein again experienced a complete upheaval. For two years the Russian Revolution had put him in constant daily danger. His family became alarmed about the persecution of the Jews and decided to flee. At the age of fifteen, Ornstein went from the salons of the aristocratic in Petrograd to the dense slums of the lower East side of New York. There, he got a scholarship to the Institute of Musical Art (the old Juilliard), where he became the student of Bertha Fiering  Tapper. Source

Ornstein wrote his first modern music in 1913: Dwarf Suite, and it was composed in one day. This was followed by Suicide in an Airplane and Danse Sauvage (Wild Men’s Dance). According to Ornstein, when Mrs. Tapper first heard Danse Sauvage, she thought that Ornstein had “lost his mental self-control.” After a few hearings, however, she sensed that here was something of value. She encouraged Ornstein to continue his experiments.Source

In January and February of 1915 he gave a series of four recitals at the Bandbox Theatre in New York. The programs were made up entirely of modern music, his own and that of others. The conservative critics called Ornstein’s music wildly anarchical. James Hunker promptly dubbed Ornstein “Leo the Intrepid” and declared that Ornstein made “Schoenberg sound tame and halting.” Despite the outcries of ultramodernity and the comparing of Ornstein with Schoenberg, Ornstein’s music is neither very modern in the usual sense -that is, in terms of abstraction and the elimination of repetition -nor is it similar to that we call Schoenbergian. If comparisons are to be made, Ornstein is perhaps closer to Stravinsky in his emphasis on color and rhythm. Ornstein uses no consistent harmonic scheme; rather, the harmonic texture is dictated by the coloring. Ornstein has said, for example, that when he is in search of soft, gentle color effects he is likely to use a diatonic system. Ornstein’s dissonance is in the use of close intervals, particularly minor seconds, and the tone clusters (used by Ornstein five or six years before Henry Cowell called them “tone clusters”) are not a random slapping at notes, but groups carefully worked-out according to overtones. One often finds in Ornstein’s works short, percussive phrases repeated at high speed in order to achieve a feeling of motion and acceleration.Source

Ornstein’s compositional process is unique. He hears entire works or at least large sections of music in his head in a complete and finished form. When he approaches the piano, he plays not a theme or a sketch but the entire work a tempo. Pauline Ornstein describes this as “a seemingly effortless process, as if Leo had picked the work whole out of the sky. ” Ornstein scribbles notes to himself as a kind of shorthand reminder of the outlines and harmonies; thereafter follows the hard work of notating the piece. The Ornsteins have an unusual system whereby he dictates the music to her. All scores from the time of their marriage in 1915 onwards are in Pauline Ornstein’s hand. When it goes well, the work is fast.Source

Leo Ornstein retired from public life in the early 1920s. It was considered mysterious, but it was not so sudden or unexpected as it seemed. Pauline Ornstein has described the torture involved for Ornstein in concert life. His extreme nervousness forced him to practice untold unnecessary hours and each concert was a veritable nightmare. Source

His “music was soon forgotten ». Ornstein’s primary compositional style was changing as well. This transformation contributed to Ornstein’s fade into obscurity. Those whom he had inspired now rejected him, almost as vehemently as the critics he had shocked a decade earlier. “[H]e had been radical modernism’s poster boy throughout the 1910s, and when he abandoned that style for one more expressive the ultramoderns reacted as a lover scorned” Source

Having abandoned not only the concert stage, but also the income that went with it, Ornstein signed an exclusive contract with the Ampico label to make piano rolls. He made over two dozen rolls for Ampico, mostly of a nonmodernist repertoire; the composers he performed most often were Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt. Two rolls contained his own compositions: Berceuse (Cradle Song) (ca. 1920–21) and Prélude tragique (1924). Ornstein never recorded, in any format, even a single example of his futurist pieces which had brought him fame.Source

In the early 1930s, Ornstein gave his last public performance. A few years later, he and his wife—the former Pauline Cosio Mallet-Prèvost (1892–1985), also a pianist—founded the Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia. Among the students there, John Coltrane and Jimmy Smith would go on to major careers in jazz. The Ornsteins directed and taught at the school until it closed with their retirement in 1953. They essentially disappeared from public view until the mid-1970s, when they were tracked down by music historian Vivian Perlis: the couple was spending the winter in a Texas trailer park (they also had a home in New Hampshire). Ornstein had continued to compose music; equipped with a powerful memory, he was not diligent about writing it all down and had not sought to publicize it for decades. Though his style had tempered greatly since the 1910s, it retained its unique character, and with his rediscovery came a new burst of productivity. In Gann’s description, piano works composed by Ornstein in his eighties, such as Solitude and Rendezvous at the Lake, featured melodies that “sprang through endless ornate curlicues that brought no other composer to mind.”Source

On February 24, 2002, Ornstein died in Green Bay, Wisconsin. At the age of 106, he was among the longest-lived of composers.Source

Sources and more

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