Leo Ornstein: Piano sonata no. 4, SO 360

performed by Marthanne Verbit from her album Past Futurists, or below by Janice Weber

The score (PDF) as well as recordings can be downloaded here for your enjoyment.

I don’t recall how I first heard about this guy. Not long after I started taking piano lessons, I jumped headfirst into trying to become familiar with as much music as possible. I’d have liked to be able to play ‘name that tune’ with all the classical music of the past four hundred years. Obviously that won’t happen in a year’s time (actually 15 months or so), but I’m getting there. I won’t say I don’t like the Classical era, but it certainly does not grab my attention like much of the music from the 19h century. So I spent quite a bit of time listening to Chopin’s ballades, etudes and sonatas, and his two piano concertos (the first being my favorite). I am still only vaguely familiar with much of (what I am well aware are some of) the most significant piano works of the millennium, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, etc. I’m getting around to it, but Scriabin threw me off on a tangent, and we will certainly get to him.
In a studious attempt to come to appreciate this man’s (Scriabin’s) music, I listened to it over and over and over (his sonatas, primarily, as the ten of them give a good indication of the different periods of his composition). Once it finally clicked, I was fascinated to see who and what else was out there similar to him or of that era or whatever, and went on a Russian modernist/avant-garde binge and picked up quite a few pieces I am still listening to on and off, from people like Feinberg and Roslavets (these more so) to Mosolov and Stanchinsky and Ustvolskaya (I know she’s far more recent than the others) (these less so), just as examples.
Ornstein was one of those, and he’s listed as an American composer on Wikipedia, which is true politically or nationally, but not ethnically or biologically. This guy was born in the Ukraine in 1893, and didn’t

move to America until he was 13 years old, by which time he was already rather accomplished and well known, mostly as a world-class pianist. Josef Hofmann heard the eight-year old Ornstein perform and submitted a recommendation for him to the St. Petersburg Conservatory. It seems he instead attended the Imperial School of music before returning home. In 1903, he was recommended to the Moscow conservatory. A year later, still only ten years old, he auditioned at and was accepted into the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied composition with Alexander Glazunov. Wikipedia says “By the age of eleven, Ornstein was earning his way by coaching opera singers…” as ridiculous as that sounds. For political reasons, in 1906, his family then moved to America, where they settled in the Lower East Side and he attended the Institute of Musical Art, better-known and better sounding by what it eventually became, The Juilliard School. I paraphrase all this from Wikipedia because I find his accomplishments at such a young age to be astounding.

Fast forward a while, and his own compositions that he premiered in NYC generated both interest and ire. He was a “futurist” composer, one of the first to use tone clusters extensively, and Wiki refers to his works as his “innovative and shocking pieces.” Regardless, he gave his last public performance before he turned 40. He opened a music school in Philadelphia, the Ornstein School of Music, where both John Coltrane and Jimmy Smith attended. Ornstein and his wife, also a pianist, worked at the school until they retired in the early 50s. Then they essentially disappeared until a music historian or something tracked them down in the 70s in a trailer park during their winter vacation in Texas. He had continued writing, but did not intend to publish his pieces, and apparently had a mind like a steel trap, so he didn’t really write them down. Upon his rediscovery, he began writing more seriously, and published his seventh and eighth piano sonatas at the ages of 95 and 97, respectively. This guy had like three careers. He was one of the longest-lived composers ever, and until Elliot Carter broke the record, Ornstein’s eighth piano sonata made him at the time the oldest published composer in history.
But let’s backtrack, now that we have this fascinating man in perspective, and think of the man in 1918, around the year this sonata was written. This was apparently around the time his public appearances as a performer began to decrease,  but it also seems to have been the height of his career. He was filling halls with thousands of people scrambling to hear him perform, especially his own shocking, never-before-heard style of “futurist” music. A few quotes around this time from the composer:
(on his move toward modernist works) :

“I really doubted my sanity at first. I simply said, what is that? It was so completely removed from any experience I ever had.”

Wikipedia says of his first performance in New York: The concert caused a major stir. One newspaper described Ornstein’s work as “the sum of Schoenberg and Scriabine [sic] squared.” Others were less analytical: “We have never suffered from such insufferable hideousness, expressed in terms of so-called music.” This seems typical of mould-breaking music. He himself says of his second recital:

“At my second concert, devoted to my own compositions, I might have played anything. I couldn’t hear the piano myself. The crowd whistled and howled and even threw handy missiles on the stage.”

It seems, however, he was still able to get some rave reviews, and a year later, was performing works by Schoenberg, Scriabin, Bartok, Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky, apparently premiering some number of works by these composers.
Again, with more perspective, we come, finally, to his fourth piano sonata, written in 1918 and published in 1924. I know nothing of the premiere. It is a four-movement work, and frankly, within the first few listens, I really enjoyed it. There’s nothing about it that I would find to be earth-shatteringly new or offensive like some of the pieces or performances described above, and while very modern-sounding in its sonic vocabulary (dissonances and recognizably modern harmonies), sounds to me like it still holds onto styles and expressions from long ago. It’s been described as similar to Debussy and/or Scriabin, although it does not sound especially Russian-y to me. The composer had been in America for about a dozen years at this point. Keep in mind, he was only 25 at the time of composition, although after reading what he’d done in those twenty-five years, it’s hard to remember he was still a youngster.
The piece on the surface has a freshness and energy (or something) that I haven’t found to be typical of this style (what style? I don’t know. Just the kind of avant-garde Russian modernist people maybe? Mosolov certainly isn’t fresh and light), but there’s something that seems reserved or melancholy or even hesitant about the piece, right up to the end. Let’s give it a run-through and see how we feel about it. I gave all this bio and background info because I think this is an important point in the composer’s life, and may shed some light on what’s going on with this piece, since it isn’t as shocking and freakishly different as the others from around this time seem to be.
  1. Moderato con moto– The opening of the first movement grabs you by the arm and pulls you along; it’s trickly and breathtaking and gripping, but once it has you, it calms down a little bit, and the melody rings out above all the background. This feel rather sets the tone for the piece, kind of an emotional center, I feel. The rest of the piece hovers around something similar or related to this emotionally, if not musically. The triplet figures against the 2/4 meter make it feel almost like a very busy Chopin nocturne. That’s just me. The piece gets a bit more dissonant and polyrhythmic (is it really polyrhythmic? I’d say yes… triplet figures against two eighth notes or four sixteenth notes to a beat) at the sostenuto marking (just under a minute in on this recording) and you do hear his tone clusters as well. This section is also marked ‘con melancolia’, and it is a beautiful six bars long before the piece expands into three staves. Marked con moto e passione, it climbs to one of the most strikingly beautiful passages in the composition (but that is not to say it has climaxed too soon), where sixteenth notes play against triplets over a huge chord in the bottom bass stave (around 1:15 in my recording). These are the two melodies we are playing with here in this piece. There’s a chatty sixteenth-note line that pushes through and feels very tense before we get back to the passionate theme I love so much, and then back to the first theme. This first movement, while simple in form, is very ornate, a bit mysterious, but wholly beautiful. As the marks on the score read, it vacillates between passion and melancholy before ending in a tranquil final low E (E1?) It’s a movement of ups and downs, but I appreciate that it isn’t overdramatic or woe-is-me while still being moving. He doesn’t complain here, just celebrates and yearns. Maybe asks.
  2. Semplice– In contrast, we have the beginning of the second movement, marked semplice. It sounds like something that would plink out of a music box, at least at first. The second half of this beginning phrase begins to introduce more emotion, as the bass fills out, and it’s audible that the piece has moved into three staves. There are three distinct voices: a very low bass, a higher trickling, plinking, and the central voice carrying the melody. This is beautiful, and we have these three characters walking arm in arm before something happens. We reach a con fuoco marking, and move back down to two staves. These three characters we had blend now and get a little more restless. Largamente brings us back into a more lyrical, restful section, thick and full of rich harmonies and a balanced but thunderous bass. This piece plays out like a very small, three-act play. After the climactic middle section is over and settles down, the innocent and peaceful music-box theme returns with our high, middle, and low, voices to end the movement in a slowed, chromatic, large-chorded way.
  3. Lento– This movement is the darkest-sounding to me. From the very beginning, it sounds questioning or doubting, even a little bit cynical, sullen, but ominous and (not evil, but) scheming or something. I don’t know. It is the shortest movement of the sonata, and contains markings like languidomolto melancolico, fluido, and molto espressivo. It’s kind of…. bristly. There’s a chatty melody again around 1:10, and it stands out in the higher register, also because it sounds to be quite dissonant, but very persistent. This movement is almost monothematic, but five bars from the end, slows way down and expands to five staves, the most I’ve ever seen on a score for sure, one bass and four treble (p. 22) and this little closing finishes the piece almost hauntingly, and without an answer.
  4. Vivo– Contrastingly, we have the vivo. The languid, grey, hollow landscape of the third movement is contrasted by the poppy liveliness and zip of the closing movement, also the longest of the piece. There are more tone clusters here too, but then back to a percussive, strongly rhythmed bit that leads right back to the opening theme. This is marked furioso, and it doesn’t sound as happy now. It almost sounds like it’s going a bit crazy. The bass is hammering out heavily-accented chords under what at first felt happy and even celebratory. It starts to sound a bit more like a Bacchic grotesque sort of a dance, almost a dark caricature of how it opened. There’s a tempo di marcia section, but it doesn’t feel especially marchy. It cools off here into a section that feels meditative. Ornstein certainly has an affinity for ornate piano writing, as this section is also in three staves. Something familiar comes back, that once happy, jolty bit from the beginning, but now legato and connected and lyrical and beautiful. Lots of cool tuplet figures toward the end of this, repeated notes, and the like. It goes in 3/4 marked forza with five 32nd notes to an 8th note beat and four regular 32nd notes in the next 8th note beat (so 9 notes to a beat, just counted differently) and then normal (not normal, but… evenly distributed) 9 notes per quarter note against quarter and triplets. All this busy-ness, but the melody stands up against it all, kind of a fragment of the beginning rhythm, this time played in fifths. The furioso bit returns, and there’s quite a bit of build up and tension as more and more tuplet figures create more density and intensity and then it just finishes.
At first, I felt this piece was approachable and light and easy to listen to, and after the first few dozen listens (not intently, just over the period of a few months), found it to be a bit saccharine… almost over sweet or TOO sappy or something in some way. But, there’s a certain tension or unresolvedness in this piece that I enjoy and that I feel makes it a pleasure to listen to. I find it to be one of the easiest-listening modern works of this type that doesn’t require a steep ‘listening curve’ like Mosolov or someone else might, just in getting used to the dissonances or harmonies. It feels like a much more approachable work of its kind, while still not pandering to new-agey music that might be played in some store where you can by healing crystals or anything. And I find this guy fascinating. I would just like to know what exactly he was thinking or feeling when he wrote this, because I am undecided.


Having said that, there’s this: I tend to think of music in terms of feelings, not images or other associations. Whereas someone might listen to a piece and think of what they see or hear (figuratively, besides the music), I almost always think in emotions. “Based upon what?” is kind of secondary to the emotion itself, although it does define (or to some extent refine) the emotion to some degree, as sadness may be easy to hear in a piece, but what kind of sadness does it sound or feel like? A loss? A pain? A regret? Some of that is very arbitrary, but it’s how I make my way around a lot of pieces if I’m not thinking about the logic of the piece itself. A piece like Ravel’s Gaspard from last week is much easier to think of in a more straightforward, literal way, because he does such a fantastic job of representing the poems musically. The imagery is so pure and direct. But with a piece like this, it almost requires the listener to meditate on themselves, and to put that emotion in context, or before that even to define what emotions they are, which, again, is highly subjective. Would you think of water had you not been told that Ravel’s Ondine is about a water fairy? There’s a good chance, I’d say. But what about here? I don’t sit and listen to music and think of someone sitting in a chair looking out a window, or get a scene in my head of a busy street and the people on it and what they’re doing. To me, that’s almost sacrilegiously too concrete for something like music, unless that’s the purpose of the music, as it was with Ravel, but it certainly didn’t stop with the imagery. There was depth of emotion. All the above having been said about the man and the piece and the context and the sonic and emotional palate, I feel (totally arbitrarily) that this piece is about him working out a direction in his life. It’s a critical choice, and there’s forces in multiple directions, and he is/was unsure. I can understand this deliberation; I’m a worrier myself, and it’s even worse when there is no clear-cut wrong answer. Ornstein clearly made decisions that were good ENOUGH for him to continue on; he led an amazing career (or four). Maybe what he left here was just a little insight into the mind of a genius and that not everything is as effortless as it seems.

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