One of America’s unique traits is its ability to accept newcomers so completely that it sees them as its own, even though their names, accents or histories abroad might clearly identify them as foreigners. Irving Berlin and Harry Houdini, who now seem so completely American, were born east of the Danube. Greta Garbo became an American movie star, as did Arnold Schwarzenegger, though both were clearly European. John Lennon, forever a Liverpudlian, was quite a fervent New Yorker. But Béla Bartók — despite arriving in the United States as one of Europe’s leading contemporary composers and writing some of his most important works here — never became one of our own. Could America have welcomed Bartók with more open arms, or were there other, extenuating circumstances that prevented us from adopting him wholeheartedly?
Certainly there was no question of quality. Bartók’s blend of late Romanticism, Debussy, Eastern European folk music and modernism ranked him among the great pioneers ofearly-twentieth-century music. His musical language — perhaps best exemplified in his Violin Sonata No. 1, with its highly chromatic yet tonal focus — provided a natural bridge between the dodecaphonic Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern) and Stravinsky. The Bulgarian folk rhythms incorporated into his music, as in the Scherzo from his String Quartet No. 5, imbue his compositions with a propulsive drive missing from Romantic music. The violin and piano concertos he composed in Europe are brilliant showpieces that have become repertoire staples, and Mikrokosmos, written initially as a primer for his son Peter, is part of almost every young pianist’s education.
Certainly the doors of America were never closed to Bartók, even before his move to New York in 1940. The composer Edgard Varèse conducted Bartók’s Deux Images for Orchestra in 1919 with the New Symphony Orchestra, and the International Composers Guild arranged a performance of his String Quartet No. 2 in 1923. Bartók’s photograph appeared alongside those of Maurice Ravel, Sir Thomas Beecham and Vladimir Horowitz in Vanity Fair’s Hall of Fame in 1927. That same year, Bartók made his debut with the New York Philharmonic as soloist in a performance of his Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra; he also submitted his String Quartet No. 3, perhaps his most formally and harmonically daring work, to the Music Fund Society of Philadelphia composition competition and won first prize, earning three thousand dollars. Touring had the potential to be quite lucrative for performing composers, and Bartók was able to command a sizable fee. A tour sponsored by the American piano manufacturer Baldwin in 1928-30 earned the composer seven thousand dollars (ninety thousand in 2011 dollars).
America’s generosity was not lacking towards Bartók, who received several important commissions prior to his arrival in the United States. A diverse range of patrons financially supported the creation of Bartók’s works, from the Library of Congress — which commissioned the String Quartet No. 5 — to jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman — who commissioned Contrasts, a chamber work for piano, violin and clarinet. A 1938 recording of Contrasts issued by Columbia Records features Bartók, Goodman and Bartók’s longtime recital partner, the Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti.
With all of these high-profile commissions and performances, had history not intervened, Bartók could have perhaps maintained a strong presence in America without leaving his native Hungary. But like so many other politically astute Europeans in the late 1930s, Bartók had to leave his homeland when the government became sympathetic to the Nazis. The fall of Hungary to German-speaking nations must have been extraordinarily painful for the composer, since he was part of a nationalistic generation that shunned the cultural influence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, preferring to look toward the folk idioms and traditions of the region in search of their origins. We forget that Hungarian-born composers of previous generations, such as the great Franz Liszt [see page 53], did not speak Hungarian, since the educated classes of their day did not consider the Hungarian language worthy of their station; German, the language of Hungary’s Austrian imperialists, was Liszt’s mother tongue. Bartók’s ethnographic work, in which he collected folk songs through on-site recordings and adopted the dress of local peasants, was as much identity politics as it was scholarly research. And so when Bartók arrived in New York at the age of fifty-nine, he may have too closely identified with his Hungarian roots to take on any affectation of his new home. Even though Bartók could speak English very well, while in New York he continued to move in Hungarian circles, having a Hungarian doctor and a Hungarian lawyer.
He settled into life in New York as best he could, living in Forest Hills in Queens and the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Home life was not always happy. Bartók’s wife had a tougher time establishing herself, and this led to a short-term separation. The couple would later reconcile and move into an apartment on West 57th Street, just a few blocks away from Carnegie Hall, where Bartók and Szigeti had performed a few years earlier.