Leo Ornstein: The Last of the Original 20th Century Mavericks

Leo Ornstein: The Last of the Original 20th Century Mavericks

VIVIAN PERLIS: Do you feel if something is good enough it will definitely be found somehow? I’m thinking in terms of bringing this into your own music.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, that’s the reason—yes, I have absolute confidence that a work of art that really has real intrinsic value will survive some amount of neglect.

VIVIAN PERLIS: You must feel that way about some of your own.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Well, I do. I’m interested, as I said, in just writing what I hear, primarily. As I said, I get a certain personal satisfaction of seeing it on the paper because once you put it on the paper, you’ve concluded the thing, and then you can move on to the next thing. Until you do that, there’s always the feeling that it hasn’t yet entirely been formulated for yourself, and you still continue staying with it. But once you really get it formulated, whether for the best or less so, you’re finished with it, and then you can move onto the other thing. There’s a certain amount of conclusion about the thing. It’s the same thing as a novelist. Finally, he brings his book to an end and can then begin to think in terms of another work. You’re talking to me about the worldly part of it. I don’t know that I would have been any happier if the things had been done very much more than they have. I don’t know that I would have been particularly changed by it in one way or another, no. I don’t disclaim a certain amount. Now you’re getting into the realm of vanity, a totally different category altogether. Surely, I don’t imagine that I’m entirely immune to a certain amount of vanity.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Isn’t that a need for a composer to want his works to be performed?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, I think so. I think there is a certain amount of satisfaction when someone looks at your work and simply says—well… I had known Stokowski purely as a pianist. I played various concertos with the orchestra. I took it up to him. He had a little room up in the upper stories somewhere in the back of the stage, in the rear part of the stage. He’d change his clothes and had a sofa to lie down to rest on. He looked at the thing, and he said—took another day or two, and then he called me and said: “Let’s do it.”

VIVIAN PERLIS: The Piano Concerto.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes. I suppose that was gratifying that he saw through it. And I remember at the end of the slow movement, he turned around to me and he said: “How did you think that?” He was apparently somewhat moved by the way it closes up there. He said: “How did you think that?” I suppose there was a certain amount of satisfaction.

VIVIAN PERLIS: I’m not sure that satisfaction is vanity.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Well, I don’t know. What would you call it, child?

VIVIAN PERLIS: I still don’t have trouble coming to—if your aim is to communicate, which you have said several times, if it is vanity to care about…

LEO ORNSTEIN: There is a combination of vanity. You can’t deny that.

VIVIAN PERLIS: But how else are they going to be communicated then?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Well, I tell you the way I really felt, just my own personal reaction has been this: that somewhere, somehow, someone will look at the work and I believe will see that it has some really significant music value and will then proceed to whatever arrangements are necessary to have things performed. Or else, if that person does not see that quality in the music, then obviously I have failed, or else they may have failed in comprehending or understanding. By that time, don’t let’s get into the realm of recrimination—whether I produced a great work of art that someone doesn’t understand quite and doesn’t quite follow, or whether I have not produced a great work of art and therefore the person says: “It’s not a great work of art,” which, of course, it may be.

VIVIAN PERLIS: There are very few people who have the ability to look at a work in score, as Mendelssohn did with Bach, for example—

LEO ORNSTEIN: Particularly a modern score.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Yes. And say: “Ah! Here is—.” Obviously, he heard…

LEO ORNSTEIN: Therefore, I’m assuming that the person that looks at your work, that comes across it, will see enough evidence of something and then will pursue it eventually to the point of having it [performed], if they are incapable of hearing it away from a performance, that they will then arrange somehow to have a performance so that it may be heard and they, themselves, may hear it if they are not capable of hearing it internally. You see, some people can hear music, as you know, quite readily, by looking at the page. I do not believe that a complicated work—there may be some people that are adroit enough, but generally speaking, I’m a bit skeptical that a complicated work of art like that, a really complicated modern score today, one can hear the thing by just reading, by looking at the score. I suppose that some conductors, for instance, maybe have that facility and that faculty. Others may have to put it on the piano and reduce it and see what the essential terms are of the piece and so on, and make their judgment that way. That I don’t know. That depends, of course, entirely upon the skill, how tutored the performer is—whether he’s a pianist or whether he’s a singer or whether he’s someone who is accustomed to reading string quartets or string music and be able to hear. Almost anybody who has had some musical training probably can hear. Take a Haydn quartet, and I think with a certain amount of training you can more or less hear. They tell of an interesting story about Berlioz. As you know, he was woefully poor as a young student in Paris. In the library, of the quartets, they only had the first violin part [of Beethoven’s quartets]. By looking at the first violin part, he was able to deduce what more or less the harmonization and the other instruments would be doing, enough to really get a fairly clear picture of what the quartet was. But in the later quartets, as the themes became more complicated and the harmonies became more personal, he began to flounder. And he realized then, when he heard it finally, he realized that he had completely missed the point because by that time, Beethoven had already put in a harmony, as I said, that was purely personal and that the routine harmonies that he had in the earlier quartets no longer fit. And that’s what happens. As a matter of fact, as our harmonies become more and more complex, it becomes very difficult—unless, as I said, unless you’re very intuitive and, particularly in the vernacular, to be able to estimate the work.

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