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The Leo Ornstein Papers

Call Number: MSS 10

Scope and Contents

The Leo Ornstein Papers contain sketches, manuscript scores, and published editions of Ornstein's musical compositions, including songs, piano pieces, chamber music, and orchestral works. The majority of the manuscripts are in the hand of Ornstein's wife, Pauline. The Papers also hold photographs, programs and reviews, biographical clippings, and prose writings by Pauline Ornstein.

The Leo Ornstein Papers also include materials that have not yet been processed. Please consult the Special Collections staff for further information.


  • 1892-1989 (inclusive)


Language of Materials

Materials chiefly in English.

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open to researchers by appointment. There are no restricted materials in the collection. Please contact the Special Collections staff to schedule an appointment.

Some of the materials may be stored at the Library's off-campus shelving facility, so researchers should allow at least two business days to have the appropriate boxes paged.

Conditions Governing Use

The Leo Ornstein Papers are the physical property of the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library of Yale University. Copyrights belong to the composers and authors, or their legal heirs and assigns.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The Leo Ornstein Papers were established in the Music Library of Yale University by Leo Ornstein in 1973.


In 3 series as follows: I. Music. II. Photographs. III. Miscellaneous.


32 Linear Feet (25 boxes)

Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


Music, photographs, and additional materials by and about the Russian-American composer Leo Ornstein (ca. 1893-2002)

Biographical / Historical

Initially regarded as a child prodigy and enfant terrible, Leo Ornstein outlasted his admirers and critics alike; born in the nineteenth century, he lived into the twenty-first. His compositional career may well be the longest in music history; stretching over eight decades, it surpasses those of even such famously long-lived composers as Verdi, Stravinsky, and Havergal Brian.

Leo Ornstein was born in the Ukrainian city of Kremenchug in 1892 or 1893. (The exact date has not been firmly established.) The son of a rabbi, he began his musical studies at home. At the age of ten he entered the conservatory of St. Petersburg, where he studied with Anna Esipova and Alexander Glazunov. After the failed Russian revolution of 1905, the Ornstein family fled to the United States, settling on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Ornstein continued his musical education at the Institute of Musical Art (later known as the Juilliard School), studying piano with Bertha Tapper and harmony with Percy Goetschius. He made his New York debut in 1911 and was immediately hailed as a supremely gifted pianist.

Ornstein soon made his mark as a composer as well. Works such as Wild Men's Dance and Suicide in an Airplane aroused critical controversy as a result of Ornstein's new compositional vocabulary, which included startling dissonances, percussive sonorities, and driving rhythms. Critics sometimes grouped him with Schoenberg and Stravinsky as leaders of the modernist movement. Ornstein's reputation was not limited to the United States; in 1913-14, he undertook a European concert tour. He created a sensation in Berlin, Paris, and London, and he became friends with leading musicians and critics, such as Ferruccio Busoni and M.D. Calvocoressi. After returning home Ornstein continued to perform regularly, and he was widely regarded as one of the most important young musicians in America. Frederick H. Martins published a short biography in 1918, Leo Ornstein: The Man, His Ideas, His Work.

In 1918 Ornstein married Pauline Mallet-Prévost, who had also been a piano student of Bertha Tapper. They had two children. Ornstein usually composed by dictating the music to his wife, so most of the manuscripts in the Ornstein Papers are in her hand.

Despite his extraordinary pianistic talents, Ornstein did not enjoy the stress, travel, and social obligations of life as a touring virtuoso. He began to curtail his concert schedule in the early 1920s , and by the early '30s, he had withdrawn from the concert stage altogether. Instead, he turned to pedagogy; for several years he was a member of the faculty at the Philadelphia Musical Academy. He later established the Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia, where he taught until his retirement in the mid-1950s. He and his wife later settled in Brownsville, Texas and then in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He died in Green Bay on February 24, 2002.

After Ornstein stopped performing in public, his music also faded from view. Although he continued to compose prolifically, he came to favor a less radical style than the one that had brought him into the limelight. Meanwhile, a new generation of modernist composers came to the fore, and by the 1950s, Ornstein was largely forgotten. Towards the end of the twentieth century, there were signs of an Ornstein revival, however. His son Severo Ornstein published many of his works under imprint of the Poon Hill Press, and several have been recorded. Historians now recognize Ornstein as a pivotal figure in the early history of musical modernism.

Register to The Leo Ornstein Papers
Edited Full Draft
Compiled by Cindy Clark and Thomas Crumb
Description rules
Finding Aid Prepared According To Local Music Library Descriptive Practices
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Gilmore Music Library Repository

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