The Kennedy Center

Piano Quintet

About the Work

Leo Ornstein Composer: Leo Ornstein
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Wild Men's Dance, he called his best-known piece, and its title captures both the ferocity of the piano playing and the modernity of the creative work on which Leo Ornstein built his reputation during the first two decades of the 20th century. Ornstein, born on December 2, 1892 in Kremenchug, Ukraine, was the son of a synagogue cantor, from whom he received his first musical training. The celebrated pianist Josef Hofmann heard little Leo play when he was ten, and recommended the boy for study at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. The family was driven out of Russia in 1907 by anti-Semitism and emigrated to New York, where Ornstein studied with Bertha Fiering Tapper and Percy Goetschius at the Institute of Musical Art. He began composing in 1910, made his debut as a pianist the following year, and soon thereafter was touring Europe and America giving concerts of "futuristic music" by himself and other of the day's most up-to-date composers. His programs of Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg, Scriabin, and, of course, Ornstein, excited both curiosity and much negative response during his early years, but he began to draw support from some influential critics after World War I and came to be highly regarded for his daring programming, iconoclastic compositions, and fiery virtuosity. In 1920, tired of what he called "the incessant practicing and the incessant traveling," he abruptly gave up international concertizing and turned to teaching piano and composition in Philadelphia, first at the Philadelphia Musical Academy and, from 1940, at his own Ornstein School of Music. He stopped performing completely by 1933, but continued to compose during the following years, though his earlier dissonances, polyrhythms, and clangorous sonorities were tamed into a more conservative idiom. After his retirement in 1953, Ornstein migrated to warmer southern climes (i.e., a trailer park in Texas), where he continued to compose (mostly for piano) until he was 97. He enjoyed a mini-revival of interest in his music in his eighties, when the first commercial recording of his music was issued by CRI and he received the Marjorie Peabody Waite Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1975. Ornstein was 109 years old when he died in Green Bay, Wisconsin in 2002.

Ornstein composed his Quintette for Piano and Strings in 1927 on a commission from the prominent American music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge; the fee was $1,000-the most Ornstein ever received for one of his compositions. He premiered the work at a concert of the Society for Contemporary Music in Philadelphia on January 1, 1928 with a string quartet comprising members of the Philadelphia Orchestra: violinists Boris Koutzen and Arthur Lipkin, violist Henri Elkan, and cellist Daniel Saidenberg. Ornstein's Quintette shared that program with two works by Béla Bartók, who was then on his first concert tour of the United States. In the liner notes for the pioneering 1975 CRI recording of the Quintette, Vivian Perlis, one of the foremost scholars of 20th-century American music and founder of the Oral History of American Music Project at Yale University, wrote,

The Quintette shows Ornstein in a less abstract, more romantic style than he had displayed in his earlier, experimental pieces. It is charged with vitality, spontaneity, and passion while retaining not only an inner logic, but also extraordinarily complicated harmonic and rhythmic structures. There are long, sweeping melodies, tunes reminiscent of Russian and Cossack songs, and driving rhythmic patterns. All of these are transformed throughout the three movements of the work. There is no key center, but the piece might be described as multi-tonal rather than atonal; the harmonic structure is complex and the textures are thick. There is a quality of integrity here, as there is in each of Ornstein's works, which derives from his determination to express his own life and feelings with utmost honesty.


Ornstein himself confirmed the deeply expressive quality of the work:

The Quintette is not a polite piece. It may even be embarrassingly overcharged ... [but] it is what I heard.... Possibly it might have been less blunt and emotionally more reserved, but if one does not sense its almost brutal emotional directness, then I have indeed failed.... While the rhetoric of the Quintette may be parochial, I hope that whatever inner light there is will touch a universal chord in the listener. The untamed emotion of the piece at first annoyed and then shocked my own ears, but any attempt to modify it destroyed whatever is genuine.


The Quintette is in three large movements, the first (Allegro barbaro) and last (Allegro agitato) muscular, the second (Andante lamentoso) elegiac, though the essential emotional quality of each is countered by strongly contrasting episodes. The movements do not follow set traditional forms, instead unfolding through sections of varied character that share much thematic material, rather in the manner of Liszt's tone poems. (Ornstein would probably not have cared for the comparison.) Several of the work's most important motivic kernels are given in the opening pages: unison string trills superimposed on hammered piano chords; a forceful, march-like melody in astringent block harmonies; breathless phrases in driving, frequently changing meters whose small leaps are transformed into a heavy, pounding theme; and an expressive melody introduced by the first violin that hints at a Middle Eastern plangency. Other thematic elements are introduced, most of them tender rather than assertive in nature, but much of what follows is rooted in the repetition and transformation of this initial cluster of ideas. The plaintive Andante is built from a similar formal procedure, with references to themes from the first movement, new material and contrasting sections of more dynamic nature, and culminates in a luminous coda of almost magical transcendence. The bracing intensity of the opening movement is renewed in the finale, whose new themes often sound like fiery Eastern European dances. (Did Ornstein know the work's premiere would share a concert with Béla Bartók, one of Hungary's leading folk music scholars?) In their 2005 edition of the score for the American Musicological Society, Denise Von Glahn and Michael Broyles wrote, "Standing comfortably among the best examples of the genre, Ornstein's piece proves the vitality of the piano quintet in the 20th century and demonstrates Ornstein's continuing development as a unique musical voice."