Free Music

Leo Ornstein

Leo Ornstein is a mostly-forgotten modern composer. However, a new site provides a long list of free MP3s of his compositions.

Born in Russia around 1893 (the exact year and day are uncertain), Leo Ornstein was recognized as a prodigy at an early age. He studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory under Alexander Glazounov but in 1907 was forced to flee with his family to America where he entered what would one day become the Juilliard School of Music. There he studied with Bertha Fiering Tapper in whose classes he met the influential Claire Reis. More significantly, he met Pauline Mallet-Prevost, herself a fine pianist, whom he would marry in 1918; she would become his lifelong collaborator, and musical scribe.

In 1910 Mrs.Tapper accompanied him on his first foreign tour and introduced him to important musical figures throughout Europe. His New York debut took place in 1911 with a completely conventional program. However, within a few years he was dazzling New York audiences with the works of Albeniz, Scott, Schoenberg, Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, Franck, and Bartok, many of which he performed for the first time in the U.S. He also created a furor with his own radical compositions and soon came to be considered an equal of Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

But along with more radical, atonal works he also composed relatively conservative music, and this confounded his audiences. Having learned to accept him as something of a musical freak, people found such works a retreat. When some of his more lyrical compositions produced accusations of “backsliding,” he concluded that listeners were more interested in novelty and sensation than in what he considered musical substance. He began to feel increasingly remote from the direction modern music was taking, in particular the search for novelty for its own sake. Ironically, having been irrevocably labeled as a radical, he was now unwilling to bend to the demands of his own image. Instead he insisted on writing in whatever style seemed demanded by the music itself.

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