Leo Ornstein

Died February 24th, 2002


Russian born composer and pianist Leo Ornstein died peacefully on 24 February 2002 in Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA. He was born in December of either 1892 or 1893, making him either 108 or 109 years old.

Ornstein was recognized as a piano prodigy at an early age. He studied at the St Petersburg Conservatory under Alexander Glazounov but in 1906 was forced to flee with his family to America where he studied at what would one day become the Juilliard School. He started giving concerts in 1911 and within a few years achieved notoriety, not only as a gifted pianist performing works of Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, Schoenberg, and Bartok for the first time in the US, but also through performances of his own radical 'futurist' compositions which created a furor. A biography and analysis of his work was written by Frederick H Martens when he was still in his twenties.

He was internationally known as a virtuoso pianist, and as a composer he was ranked with Stravinsky and Schoenberg. In the late 1920s, however, at the height of a successful concert career, he abruptly ceased performing. A few years later, together with his wife Pauline Mallet-Prevost, he formed a music school in Philadelphia where he taught until retiring in the mid 1950s. After that he devoted his time entirely to composing. His final work, an 8th Piano Sonata, was composed in 1990 when he was in his late 90s, making him perhaps the oldest active composer ever. That sonata and works from his early years will be performed by Marc-Andre Hamelin on 26 March 2002 at Columbia's Miller theater.

Although best known for a collection of radical early works, throughout his life he wrote in diverse styles. Such stylistic eclecticism confounded his listeners which, in turn, may explain why he chose to retire from the concert stage in order to follow his muse away from public pressure and scrutiny.

Picked by Slabmaster General.