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December 2: The Futurist Pianist

Lawrence Bush
December 2, 2016
Leo Ornstein, whose "futurist" (later called "modernist") piano compositions both scandalized and delighted critics and audiences in the early 20th century, was born in the Ukraine on this date in 1895 (official documentary sources say December 11, but Ornstein claimed December 2nd as his birthday). The son of a cantor, Ornstein was a piano prodigy who trained in the Moscow and St. Petersburg Conservatories before his family brought him to the U.S. in 1906 to escape pogroms. He enrolled in the Institute of Musical Art (which evolved into Juilliard) and had a New York debut In 1911. Considered to be a world-class pianist, Ornstein began in 1914 to present modern compositions by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Debussy, and others — and radically different pieces of his own that pioneered the use of the tone cluster in classical music with "brutal accents . . . complex rhythms and gigantic crashing chords traverse the whole range of the piano," according to music scholar Gordon Rumson. A 1918 biography of the composer — whose concerts attracted huge audiences until he cut himself off from public performance in the early 1920s — described the perception of Ornstein as "an evil musical genius wandering without the utmost pale of tonal orthodoxy, in a weird No-Man's Land haunted with tortuous sound, with wails of futuristic despair, with cubist shrieks and post-impressionist cries and crashes. He is the great anarch, the iconoclast." Rediscovered by modernists in the 1970s, Ornstein continued to compose throughout his 106 years of life. To hear his "Wild Men's Dance" (1913), look below. "[His] musical language organized itself into a shimmering, luminous gradation between simplicity and harshness. The melodies have a Hebraic tint, and Ornstein does not shy from placing dissonant and tonal music side by side. This shifting of style is just one of Ornstein's creative tools. More importantly, there is a directness of emotion that makes the music genuinely appealing. It should also be noted that his music is ideally written for the piano and is clearly the work of a master pianist." --Gordon Rumson

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.