Leo Ornstein: Modernist Dilemmas, Personal Choices

Leo Ornstein: Modernist Dilemmas, Personal Choices

by Michael Broyles, Denise Von Glahn


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Leo Ornstein: Modernist Dilemmas, Personal Choices by Michael Broyles, Denise Von Glahn

Leo Ornstein: Modernist Dilemmas, Personal Choices traces the meteoric rise and heretofore inexplicable disappearance of the Russian-American, futurist-anarchist, pianist-composer from his arrival in the United States in 1906 through a career that lasted nearly a century. Outliving his admirers and critics by decades Leo Ornstein passed away in 2002 at the age of 108. Frequently compared to Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, for a time Ornstein enjoyed a kind a celebrity granted few living musicians. And then he turned his back on it all. This first, full-length biographical study draws upon interviews, journals, and letters from a wide circle of Ornstein's friends and acquaintances to track the Ornstein family as it escaped the horrors of the Russian pogroms, and it situates the Russian-Jewish-American musician as he carved out an identity amidst World War I, the flu pandemic, and the Red Scare. While telling Leo Ornstein's story, the book also illuminates the stories of thousands of immigrants with similar harrowing experiences. It also explores the immeasurable impact of his unexpected marriage in 1918 to Pauline Mallet-Prevost, a Park Avenue debutante.

Leo Ornstein: Modernist Dilemmas, Personal Choices finds Ornstein at the center of several networks that included artists John Marin, William Zorach, Leon Kroll, writers and activists Paul Rosenfeld, Waldo Frank, Edmund Wilson, and Clair Reis, the Stieglitz Circle, and a group of English composers known as the Frankfurt Five. Ornstein's story challenges directly the traditional chronology and narrative regarding musical modernism in America and its close relation to the other arts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253348944
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 10/28/2007
Pages: 408
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.34(d)

About the Author

Michael Broyles is Distinguished Professor of Music and Professor of American History at The Pennsylvania State University.

Denise Von Glahn is Associate Professor of Musicology and Director, Center for Music of the Americas, in the College of Music at Florida State University.

Read an Excerpt

Leo Ornstein

Modernist Dilemmas, Personal Choices

By Michael Broyles, Denise Von Glahn

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2007 Michael Broyles and Denise von Glahn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02866-2


Jacob Titiev's Story

Patching together the early life story of a Russian Jew coming to America at the turn of the century, even one as famous as Leo Ornstein, is no easy task. The disdain for Jews in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Russia and the numerous and successful efforts to eliminate them through a series of pogroms, means that most public records normally available for consultation simply do not exist. There are few birth certificates, records of businesses owned, inventories of personal property, or official accounts of this dispossessed people.

In the case of Leo Ornstein, there is no extant official document that states the month, day, or year of his birth. On the contrary, there are various and contradictory references to his age, which seemed to change depending upon circumstances and memories. It is likely that he was made older than his years to qualify for admission to the conservatory in St. Petersburg. Later on, in keeping with the tradition of eternally youthful child prodigies, he would be identified as younger than his actual years. The only official document we have discovered that illuminates doe year Leo was born is a birth certificate for his niece Madeline, the daughter of his twin sister Lisa. The place on the certificate that lists the mother's age establishes her year of birth as 1893. Traditionally, one feels comfortable assuming that twins are the same age, but even this expectation is problematized by another document.

The manifest for the Campania, the ship that transported the from Liverpool to New York in February 1906, lists Ornsein's parents, Abram (musician) and Claire (wife), ages forty-nine and forty-two, and six of their seven children; the oldest daughter, Rose, traveled with her husband Jacob Titiev and their children, and so she is listed separately on the manifest. We can account for Leo's brothers Aaron (who is identified as a pianist), Manus, and Lazar, and his sisters Pauline (gymnast) and Lisa. A nine-year-old "child" named Judka, however, presents difficulties as the Ornsteins had no such child. Additionally, Leo is not listed anywhere. We assume that Judka was the name assigned by the bursar of the ship to the young Leo, who as a child went by the name Leova, which may have been misunderstood as Judka.

Immigration rules of the time required families to be in possession of $50.00 for each family member twelve years or older who was sailing to this country. As the facsimile of the manifest shows, the Ornsteins presented $300.00 and declared Lazar and Judka to be ten and nine, respectively. Miraculously, Lisa is listed as fourteen, a full five years older than Judka. Given Leo's extremely small stature and childlike visage, it would have been quite easy for him to appear younger than his age. Lisa, on the other hand, an adolescent girl of twelve, may have presented greater difficulties for parents or family members trying to shave off a few years. The rest of the children were much too old to pass for under twelve, and so Lazar and Judka became the two family members under twelve, thus saving the family $100.00. No mention was made of any of the children being twins.

The question of Ornstein's age becomes all the more tangled when within two months of arriving in the United States and enrolling at the Institute of Musical Art the nine-year-old is listed as twelve (his real age according to his nieces birth certificate). By this time the "G" of Gornstein has been dropped, and his last name appears on the registration form as Orenstein. This spelling held for a time and is how Leo is listed on Institute recitals from 1907 through spring 1909. By December 1909 the spelling was standardized to what we know it as today: Ornstein. Identity morphed. Thousands of refugees and immigrants poured into the country, many of them with minimal possessions and no trace of their history except that which was burned in their memories.

With these conditions being the rule rather than the exception, the discovery of an account written by one of those immigrants, regardless of when it was created, sends biographers into paroxysms of joy. Its rarity confers special meaning upon the document. In the early 1930s Leo Ornstein's brother-in-law, Jacob Titiev, husband of Leo's sister Rose, wrote such an account. It chronicles the journey of one Jewish immigrant family to America and supplies the only record of Ornstein's years in Russia written by someone who was there with him. We have chosen to have Jacob tell the story in his own words, interrupting him only to clarify or contextualize his remarks.

Jacob Titiev was born in 1877 to a wealthy, land-owning family in the vicinity of Kremenchug. I distinctly remember our big house, which was the main house for some miles. It was separated from a few neighboring little peasant dwellings by a trench surrounding our domain from all sides; Our yard must have taken up a couple of miles. Apart from our big house there were several buildings of very large proportions. There was one house, where in the summer time, there were sleeping quarters for two or three hundred men, and one of about the same size for women. There were stables for an enormous quantity of horses, also for cows, and even a separate stable for sheep, and one for goats. Then there were quarters for chickens and other fowl, one big house being occupied by pigeons. There were also dog kennels for shepherd dogs, and other dog kennels just for watch dogs. ... My father owned two thousand acres of land, and in the summer time we had about five or six hundred people working in our fields and in the yard.

Jacob's father saw to the education of his offspring by hiring a teacher from the city for [his] brothers and sisters. Jacob, too young for formal schooling, paid full attention to [his siblings'] studies during the week and learned much by overhearing their lessons. His intellectual interests and gifts resulted in being pressed in to the study of the Bible before [he] had reached the ripe age of five! The death of his father when he was just five, however, and the dispersal of his family's possessions resulted in a significant change of status for young Jacob and his family. His mother took Jacob and his seven siblings to live with a relative, and Jacob was placed in a school. For the first two terms I was tutored in Krukow, but after that it was admitted by all the teachers of Krukow that they were not able to teach me any further. Therefore, I was compelled to walk every morning, summer and winter, from three to four miles before 8 A.M., and the same distance back again every evening after 8 P.M. ... This was the only way I could get some instruction. When Jacob was twelve he was bar mitzvahed.

Jacob's intellectual gifts were acknowledged by the Kremenchug rabbis who decided that it was time he go to a Yeshibot (that is the highest school of learning similar to a University) and to the best one of its kind. Volosin was the Yeshibot chosen for me because of the head of that institution "Reb Hersh-Leib," who was a great genius. And so, at just twelve years of age Jacob was sent to Volosin. By his own accounting, he was an exceptional student. How well I remember my first session when studies began. I was called upon to recite in front of the whole assembly — we were ninety-two in all — and I was the third one called upon. I managed to include as many commentaries as possible, almost without error. When I had finished the Rabbi turned to the class and said, "That is the way I want you all to prepare your lessons, that is to say, it is almost a thorough study."

But his much older classmates had little use for a boy five or six years younger than any of them in their midst:. They did not even recognize me, one step out of the Yeshibor. I still was a mere baby to all of them. The result was that I had no one to play with or exchange a word not pertaining to studies. I had no enjoyment of any kind, and I grew morose. I started to hate people. I saw their falsehood. They praised and even flattered me in order to have me prepare the lectures with them, and immediately discarded me as a shameful thing. It came even to the point that I refused to prepare the lectures with them under any consideration. They would come and beg me and entreat me to make friends, real friends, with them, but I noticed that even if they stopped to greet me in the street, they always had an urgent mission to perform — this being an excuse to leave me at once.

Although he was friendless other aspects of his schooling appeared to be going quite well for Jacob until he questioned two apparently contradictory passages in religious texts that had been assigned. When he noted the discrepancy to his teacher, the rabbi reprimanded him severely: Before I even finished my sentence, I received such a smack in the face that I saw stars. And I heard the Rabbi say, "You fool. You must ask no questions." From that time on, I became a perfect non-believer.

Soon after the incident, the head of the school, acknowledging that Jacob was never going to use his Hebrew studies in any professional capacity, encouraged him to pursue Russian, a foreign language for young Jewish children, and then after a while to learn double-entry bookkeeping, thus preparing Titiev for a career in business. Because he and the head rabbi shared great mutual respect and affection, Jacob's lack of religious belief was not an impediment to his staying at the Yeshibot. He mastered Russian. In every way Jacob was a model student Upon the death of his brother-in-law, however, when Jacob was just fifteen-and-a-half years old, be left his formal studies to support his sister and her three children. Using the skills he had learned, he became the bookkeeper to two merchants in Kremenchug. Leaving school would be the first of many sacrifices Jacob made to nurture and support his extended family. Later on, Leo Ornstein would benefit from his generosity as well.

During the next few years Jacob made the acquaintance of Rose Ornstein, the daughter of the Cantor of the Great Synagogue, Avremele Ornstein. Their courtship was difficult. Jacob also met her youngest brother, Leo: In time I started to notice that Leo — that is one of the twins — was very attentive to music. In fact, on Sunday he climbed up on the piano stool to the piano, and started banging on the keyboard, I noted that if he struck a discord, he kept on trying another and another combination, and that he never stopped on a discord. But if he happened to strike an accord, he kept on striking the same accord many a time. Then he wandered off again and did not stop until he struck a proper accord again, I immediately recognized the genius in him.

At one time Jacob played a tune on the violin for the young prodigy who mimicked it easily at the piano, even creating an accompaniment for the melody. I was like a drunk! When his father and a basso who sang in his chorus for a number of years entered the house, I asked them to keep quiet and to listen to something, I took my violin once more and played the same few simple bars before Leo, asking him right after to play them for me. He did it with the accompaniment! They could not believe it was his own work, as they thought that I had shown him the fingering.

That incident was a defining moment in his life and in Leo's: From that day on, all my attention was concentrated on that child. When he grew up to be five years of age I started to teach him music. Soon enough I felt that he needed really good instruction, and I started to search for a good teacher, against the will of his parents, who used to curse and abuse me, and call me crazy for it. The first teacher I brought him to was the wife of one of our prominent physicians. She was a graduate of Rubinstein's Conservatorium of Music, She declared to me after listening to his playing, "I can not be bothered with such babies!" The next one was the wife of a well-known dentist. She was a graduate of the Moscow Conservatorium of Music, She taught him for about six months, but I did not like the method she used in her teaching. She was lacking expression, which I tried to instill in him from the outset. I changed her for another who was still worse. At that time, there came to our city a very young lady. She was the wife of a captain of a boat. She was a very fine musician. On hearing about her I went with Leo to see her. As soon as she heard him play, I could not take him away from her. The greatest progress he ever made in so short a period of time was under her tutelage. But she soon had to leave town on account of her husband's appointment. Meanwhile Leo reached the age of almost seven years. At that time it was announced in the newspapers and by posters that Josef Hofmann was coming for a concert. I decided to have Leo play before Josef Hofmann, and to get the opinion of so great an authority.

When Jacob learned where Hofmann was staying, he convinced the virtuoso to consider listening to Leo. Hofmann responded: If that is the case, take him over to the Concert Hall. There you will find my tuner who is a graduate of Moscow Conservatorium. Tell him that I sent you. Let him listen to the child, and if he will report to me anywhere near what you think, you don't have to worry. I'll listen to him. Jacob went to the hall and explained that Hofmann had sent them, and the tuner took Leo up to the piano at once. But the child could not reach the keyboard, so we put our coats on the stool and set him up on top. Then he could reach the piano keyboard all right.

Leo played for the tuner and a nurse who accompanied Hofmann on his tours; before he was done they took our address and promised to let us hear from them soon! We went home and rested up a bit and had some refreshments.

No sooner were we done with our little party than a phaeton — that is a two-horse carriage — stopped near our door and from it there emerged Hofmann's nurse, his manager, and his tuner. All of them were dressed in the height of theatrical fashion. They came into the simple house of my father-in-law to invite us to the concert.

I remember myself blushing like a schoolgirl, I saw the impresario holding tickets and asking me how many there were in the family, I was ashamed to tell him how large a family it was, so I told him a couple of tickets would do.

"Oh! Take a least a half a dozen, you can give them to your friends," he said, "You and the little boy don't need any tickets. When you come in, look for any one of us. We will take you to your place, Mr. Hofmann has ordered two seats to be made on the stage. You and the little boy will sit there because Mr. Hofmann wants the boy to be able to see his hands while he is playing."

I thanked them very much for their kindness.

Leo's attendance at Hofmann's concert would mark the beginning of his eventual move away from home. Towards evening I took the child with me to the concert. As soon as we entered, the impresario met us and took us up on the stage. We sat there the first half of the concert until intermission. At intermission time the impresario came over to us, and rushed us, against my protest that the artist would surely need that time for rest, into a room where we found Josef Hofmann reclining on a couch.

On seeing us enter he turned to Leo and asked "Do you know Beethoven?"

Leo — as a child naturally would — replied, "Yes I do know Beethoven."

Josef Hofmann then took him up on the couch, looked at his little fingers, at the shape of his ears, and in general at his entire appearance. Then, getting up to go back on stage to continue his concert, he said to me, "You and the child had better stay here. The public was devouring the child with their eyes. I'll not close the door, I'll only let down the curtains, so that you can hear everything."

We remained in the room till after the performance. When Mr. Hofmann finished, the applause broke out thunderously and kept up for quite a time.

Mr. Hofmann did not feel like playing any more, but on entering the room he noticed little Leo applauding him and he then turned to Leo and asked him, "Did you like it?"

"Yes, Very much."

"Would you like to hear me play some more?"


"All right, I'm going to play for you!"

He went out and played Mendelssohn's Wedding March, When he came in, Leo was applauding with more vigor than ever.

In the meantime the packers started to take away the piano. On hearing that noise, Mr. Hofmann rang for the impresario. When he came in Mr. Hofmann asked, "Are they going to take away the piano?"


Excerpted from Leo Ornstein by Michael Broyles, Denise Von Glahn. Copyright © 2007 Michael Broyles and Denise von Glahn. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Jacob Titiev's Story
2. From Institute to Bandbox
3. Circles and Triangle and Networks and Nets
4. The Bandbox and After
5. Identity
6. The Turning Point
7. The Philadelphia Years
8. Return from Oblivion
Appendix 1. Table of Ornstein Compositions

What People are Saying About This

David Nicholls

"Leo Ornstein's story has for far too long languished in the pending tray of music history. In this lively, thoughtful, and meticulously researched volume, Michael Broyles and Denise Von Glahn finally afford Ornstein the attention he deserves, firmly establishing his importance to early-twentieth-century modernism, before exploring and explaining his descent into, and subsequent return from, historical oblivion. The tale they tell is as fascinating as it is bizarre."--(David Nicholls, contributing editor of The Cambridge History of American Music)

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