When I visited Budapest earlier this month, the last stop I made on my way back to Vienna was Béla Bartók's residence, high up in the Buda hills. The house, which the great composer bought in 1932, is a modest three-story dwelling, overlooking a sloping front garden with wide-ranging views to the north. Much of the home's original furnishings have been preserved, including Bartók's carved desk, his Bösendorfer piano, and the phonograph on which he listened to his own recordings of Hungarian folk songs. (You can see all of my pictures here.)
Bartók moved to this house primarily to escape the noise and bustle of Pest, where he lived for many years while teaching at the Liszt Academy of Music. The quiet country setting certainly had a positive impact on his output: among the works Bartók wrote here were the fifth and sixth string quartets (1934, 1939), Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936), the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937), Contrasts for clarinet, violin, and piano (1938) and Divertimento (1939).
So, it's no surprise that when Bartók left Budapest and settled here in New York after the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1940, the move initially had a negative impact on his creativity and general well-being. He and his wife, Ditta, struggled financially, surviving on a small stipend from Columbia University where they spent several years transcribing the school's extensive collection of Serbian and Croatian folk music. New York no doubt also contributed to Bartók's rapid physical deterioration: after years of pain and suffering, he was finally diagnosed with leukemia, the disease which eventually claimed his life in 1945.
As the above video with Esa-Pekka Salonen points out, shot last year by London's Philharmonia Orchestra, Bartók was almost completely unknown during his time in New York. His few concerts as a pianist were poorly attended, and when he passed away, only 10 people attended his funeral. Contrast that with Bartók's contemporary Igor Stravinsky, who also died in New York (in 1971) but was hailed as the most famous composer in the world. Given Bartók's reputation as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, such neglect seems not only unjust, but completely unfathomable. (The presiding orthodoxy of Serialism was apparently at least partly to blame.)
But, despite all of this hardship, Bartók's time in New York wasn't completely tragic. In the final year of his life, Bartók found a burst of creativity that yielded several masterpieces, including the 3rd Piano Concerto, the Viola Concerto, the Sonata for Solo Violin - and, most famously, the Concerto for Orchestra, which Serge Koussevitsky commissioned from him in order to give him a chance to earn some money. Ironically, it was the wild success of the Concerto for Orchestra which allowed American audiences to embrace Bartók's earlier work, a process which continues to this day. (See my post about Lang Lang's performance of the 2nd Piano Concerto just last week.)
If you ever find yourself on 57th Street between 8th and 9th Aves., you might happen across a small plaque on the north side of the street, with a bronze bust situated above it. Upon closer examination, you'll notice that it marks the apartment where Bartók lived and worked during that fertile last year of his life. With no shortage of well-known composers currently living in NYC, it's would be easy to overlook this modest historical monument, signifying what an obscure Hungarian did here some 70 years ago. But, for me, it represents an indispensible link in the great chain of music, one that stretches from here to Hungary, and all points beyond - a reminder that great art will always transcend time and place no matter where it's created, or how long it takes to be recognized. It's just one more reason why I'm proud to call this place home.