Leo Ornstein began his career as a child prodigy and typical virtuoso but completely changed both his repertoire and his personal compositional style around 1913. A tale of his epiphany has been passed down: Ornstein is said to have had a novel chord sounding in his inner ear one morning, which he first tried to express at the piano and then shaped into a composition (titled Funeral March of the Dwarves). What specific influences may have inspired Ornstein, or how much modern music he may have become acquainted with on his first trip to Europe in 1910, has not been conclusively settled by this partly disputed story. But in any case, the kernel of truth in the story may be his intuitive, improvisatory approach to composition, which recognizes the importance of the immediacy of expression as well as leaves room for the imagination of the listener.
Ornstein stands at a turning point in the development of the extended piano insofar as his chords, which he himself named “clusters,” are mostly (though not completely) comprised of seconds and often extend beyond the range of what five fingers can do. He therefore occasionally employed the palm of the hand, as he said, “merely as a matter of convenience” and because “the sound produced in this manner is less harsh than it would be the case if the notes were played with the fingers.” Fists and forearms are, however, not used.
Nevertheless, Ornstein’s compositions earned him the reputation of an “ultramodernist” or “futurist” among his contemporaries. But this was a double-edged sword, for although sensation and scandal may have advanced his career, they also frequently hindered serious engagement with his music.
To counteract this tendency, Ornstein appealed pedagogically to the public with essays under the title “How my music should be played and sung” (The Musical Observer) and publicized a piece – The Cathedral – composed expressly for this purpose along with an introductory program and corresponding performance instructions.