Leo Ornstein and publishing agreements

The following article by Severo Ornstein, son of composer Leo Ornstein, describes the dangers of publishing agreements.

Leo Ornstein

The Russian born composer and pianist, Leo Ornstein, was a well-known figure in American music in the early part of the twentieth century. A number of his compositions were published in the 1910-1930 era, but he stopped performing about 1930 and by the middle of the century his name was largely forgotten. Then in 1973 Vivian Perlis presented a paper about him and his music at the American Musicological Society meeting which, together with a few LP recordings, led to a revival of interest in his music. About a dozen works were published in the ensuing decade by Joshua Corporation (an affiliate of General Music Publishing).

After retiring in 1985, I decided to dedicate myself to bringing fresh attention to my father’s music because it seemed to warrant far more than it was receiving. The first task was to organize his oeuvre. As I explored the archive of his works at the Yale University Music Library, it became clear that efforts by my mother to maintain order had been only partially successful. The two of them had focused on his composing, she acting as his scribe. Given my father’s indifference to such things, all other matters – publishing, copyrights and the like – received scant attention. In addition to the published works a large number of manuscripts, many unnamed and/or undated, were held in the Yale archive. I obtained copies of everything and put the works in order as best I could, assigning a unique “S-number” to each piece.

Leo Ornstein

After abortive attempts to interest major music publishers in publishing the music, I gave up and in 1987 set about printing the unpublished music myself using the only computer program then available that could handle all of the necessary notational devices. After a decade of work I had printed some 1,700 pages of piano music. These I assembled, together with copies of earlier published works, into a 13-volume set and published under the name Poon Hill Press. With funding from an interested friend, copies of the set were placed in a dozen or so university libraries around the world. For a time I also sold the volumes at cost, but discontinued doing so after 1990 when my son David and I built a website containing PDF versions of the scores which could be downloaded for free. We also put assorted audio recordings and other information about Ornstein onto the website (http://LeoOrnstein.net).

Although my father had left all rights to his music to me, profit was never a need or a motive for me; nor did I believe that significant money would ever derive from such esoteric music. My only purpose was to make the music better known and accessible to performers. So I spent my time on the music itself rather than on attempting to unravel the confused copyright situation. I believed that by then (1990) those works which had been published in the early part of the century were in the public domain. However I was somewhat concerned about the works which had been published by Paul Kapp, the owner of Joshua Music Corp. I knew that he had died and that all his publication of my father’s music had ceased. I learned that his heirs had sold the rights to everything he had published to EMI Screen Gems who were primarily interested in rights to the popular song, I Left My Heart In San Francisco.

Leo Ornstein brochure

My father had signed a contract with BMI and as his heir I became eligible for the composer’s royalties they collect for performances of his music. When I looked at their listing of his works, however, I was dismayed to discover the same sort of confusion that was manifested in the manuscript collection at Yale. There were duplicate entries for the same work, some sets were listed both as a set and as individual pieces, etc. What really surprised me, however, was that EMI Screen Gems was listed as the publisher of numerous works that had never been published except by myself, as well as of works that had never been published by anyone.

I protested to BMI that their files contained errors, and above all that some of the listed publishers were incorrect. I offered to help them straighten out their records, but they were unwilling to bother, citing a lack of funds in the classical music division. Eventually BMI sent me a copy of the contract that my parents had signed with Paul Kapp and which EMI had presented to BMI to substantiate their claim to the works. That copy turned out to be only partial and in particular omitted the page containing a handwritten correction in my mother’s hand. On that page my mother had carefully inscribed the single word “published” after the words “the entire group of works” in an attempt to circumscribe Kapps claim to the entire oeuvre. I have a letter from my mother written at the time explaining that although Kapp had wanted to be granted rights to all of my father’s works, they had taken pains to be sure that he was granted rights only to those works which he actually published. This concern is discussed in the recent biography of Ornstein by Broyles and Von Glahn.*

ornstein - modernist

After abortive exchanges with both BMI and EMI, I concluded that, despite the lack of significant commercial value, in order to get EMI to relinquish their unwarranted claims and to get BMI’s records corrected I would have to hire a lawyer, threaten a lawsuit, etc. Although it was painful to have to accept the situation, I decided my job was to make the music accessible, not to embark on a struggle with the music establishment. Unwilling to expend further funds and effort in legal pursuit, I let the whole matter lie – where it has lain ever since. I can only assume that, based on BMI’s files, EMI has continued to receive publishing royalties for performances of works that I actually published or that no one has published.

On the positive side, I’m pleased that my efforts have resulted in a continuing interest in my father’s music and that new recordings are being pursued even as I write. The music itself will outlive all of us and will ultimately find its proper place in the lexicon of twentieth-century American music.


* Michael Broyles and Denise Von Glahn, Leo Ornstein, Modernist Dilemmas, Personal Choices, Indiana University Press, 2007, Page 271

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