Leo Ornstein & The Oblivion: Connect or Disconnect?

OrnsteinToday I have discovered Leo Ornstein. Well, actually, I discovered his music because Leo Ornstein passed away in 2002 being more than a hundred years old (it’s not clear what his date of birth is, but if you take 1893 as a valid date, Ornstein died at around 109). I might have heard of his name before, and I might even have found out about this American composer of Ukrainian origin on the Internet. But it has only been today that I have bought some of his recordings -Piano Music (Naxos) performed by Janice Weber; Piano Music (Hyperion) performed by Marc André Hamelin- and read carefully the web page that his son Severo and grandson David dedicated to him after his death. I must say that while I’m writing these lines, I’m listening to his complete works for cello and piano performed by the cellist Joshua Gordon and the pianist Randall Hodgkinson for New World Records, which I recommend to anybody who wants to know this composer a little bit better, a composer who was branded as the last of the original 20th century mavericks. (You can also listen to some of his music audio files for free here:

I remember some words I heard from Robert Greenberg on one of his great courses:

Leo y Pauline

Leo & Pauline

“composers are people who describe what they see, hear, understand, feel, and perceive in musical terms”. Composers are “people”, not “gods”. And this is, precisely, what makes me write now about Leo Ornstein and set him as an example of what I called a “transforming discovery”. And I also hope to come up with some reflections about everything we don’t know when we think we know. To be fair with Ornstein’s career as a musician, it is impossible not to mention his wife Pauline, who transcribed and copied most of his scores. I would even go further and dare to say she was essential in most of Ornstein’s works.

Leo Ornstein had a brilliant career as a concert pianist and composer at the beginning of the 20th century. In his heyday as a pianist, he walked away from his fame by the mid 1920s to dedicate himself to teaching and composing. From the fame hall he entered the room of anonimity, which is the same as to say he was cast into oblivion. But this did not prevent him from having a long life as a composer… And long it was indeed! Ornstein wrote his Sonata no. 8 at the age of 98…

I was saying that composers are not gods. It is us making them gods, we “pedestalize” them depending on taste, fashion and, during the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, marketing. And the same way we pedestalize them, we also cast them into oblivion, into indifference… A similar case to Ornstein’s is the composer and pianist Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938), who had a lot of fame in his day, but whose music is known by just a few people today. If I would name Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, most people in the Western world would recognise them almost immediately, even if they had never listened to any of their works. And although it is true that the music of those composers has transcended modern Western history, that doesn’t mean it will keep transcending in 100 or 200 years.

Let’s take some perspective. By the time I’m writing this words, Vivaldi died 274 years ago, Bach 265 years ago -I remind you that Bach was renowned as an organist in his lifetime, but his recognition as a composer for most audiences would not arrive until around 80 years after his death, when his music was rescued by Felix Mendelssohn-, Mozart 224 ago, Beethoven 188… Two hundred years can be a lot or just a few depending on our point of view. For humankind history, 200 years is a miserable instant. Godowsky died 77 years ago (which is less than the average of the life expectancy of a person in most Western countries nowadays)… Ornstein died 13 years ago. Will human beings keep on listening to Bach, Mozart or Beethoven in hundred or two hundred years time? I don’t know, but it could be that they might be cast into oblivion, too. It has happened to many other people before and after them. Will we keep on listening to Elvis Presley, The Beattles, Queen, Deep Purple, Abba in 25 years time from now? I think that the very moment someone’s music stops connecting with the listener, then that music and the person who wrote it are simply forgotten (and I dare to say that during the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, if there is no marketing, oblivion takes over every living creature). Who will people connect with in 80 years time when I most probably will not be here any more?

Leo Ornstein a los 107 años

Leo Ornstein at 107 years old

Let’s go back to Leo Ornstein, who has been a real discovery for me, more because of the reflections his case aroused in me than because of his music. The main reflection is that one which would answer the following question: What makes us connect with others? And it’s even more interesting to answer this other question: What makes us not to want to connect with others? Ornstein connected with great audiences at the beginning of his career as a concert pianist, but then he decided to disconnect and was forgotten… This leads me to ask myself the following question: Am I really connecting now with the eventual reader of these words or will this article simply be “pedestalized” in the hall of oblivion? Alas, marketing…!

Michael Thallium
Global Greatness Coach
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