Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Béla Bartók (1881-1945): The years in America, triumph over tragedy

James L. Franklin
George Dunea
Chicago, Illinois, United States


Béla Bartók in 1927
Fig 1. Béla Bartók in 1927. Unknown Photographer. Via Wikimedia.

Black clouds of war were hanging over the world when Béla Bartók and his wife Ditta Pásztory (1903-1982) disembarked in New York Harbor on October 30, 1940. For the remainder of his life, Bartók would learn, as had Dante, “. . . how salt the taste of another man’s bread and how hard is the way up and down another man’s ladder.”1 At the age of fifty-nine, a “stranger in a strange land,”2 he and his wife would have to learn a new language and with limited resources navigate the confusing and chaotic landscape of one of the world’s largest metropolises. He would confront a slowly progressive and mysterious illness that would ultimately cause his death at the age of sixty-four. Yet he triumphed, writing some of his greatest music and assuring his place as one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century.

Shortly after his death, a polarized view of Bartók’s final years emanated from voices in post-war Hungary. The democratic world had not recognized his courageous stand against Fascism or rewarded his musical mastery. It was alleged that he was exploited by a millionaire culture that led him to betray modernism and compose works that would be acceptable to the public. There were accusations that he had left Hungary well, but in the asphalt jungle of America failed to receive medical attention and died in poverty.3 As a foil to those charges, what follows is an account of those years in America with an emphasis on his illnesses—tuberculosis and leukemia—and the medical care he received.

Throughout the 1930s, Bartók watched anxiously as Europe and his beloved Hungary drifted further under the grip of Fascist dictators. As a young man, Bartók had felt the weight of Austrian oppression and fiercely supported Hungarian nationalism. Writing to his mother, he asserted: “I shall pursue one objective all my life, in every sphere and in every way: the good of Hungary and the Hungarian Nation.”4 He kept his word. The spirit of Hungarian nationalism is imprinted onto the music he created with deep roots that arose from his devoted study of the folk music and folk customs of his native lands. He believed that Hungary suffered “politically and culturally” from the proximity of Germany. Early on he had an aversion to Teutonic influences, refusing to speak German unless absolutely necessary.5 The rise to power of Benito Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany threatened to overrun Europe. Hungary, opposed to the terms of the Treaty of Trianon of 1920 that had reduced its territory and population by 60 to 70%, was progressively being drawn into the Rome-Berlin axis.

In 1937, the Reich Music Chamber demanded an investigation of the “Aryanism” of Bartók’s music. Without regard to the loss of performance fees, Bartók responded to these threats by refusing to allow his music to be broadcast in Italy or Germany. The disaster he foresaw was not long in coming. On March 13, 1938, Hitler entered Vienna and the Anschluss became a reality. Sensing the inevitable capitulation of his government to “bandits and assassins,” Bartók knew he could not remain in Hungary. But as he wrote to a friend: “my mother is here: now, in the last years of her life, to abandon her forever—no, this I cannot bring myself to do!” Bartók’s mother, Paula (née Voit), had given him his first piano lessons and nurtured his talent. Though sickly as a child, she had given him the confidence to excel. But where to go? He had considered finding work in Turkey, but found the way blocked by a foreign musician in a position of authority who would allow no competition. The crisis was rapidly evolving. By October 1938, the Munich Pact had given Hitler the Sudeten lands in Czechoslovakia. Late August 1939 saw the signing of a non-aggression pact between National Socialist Germany and the Soviet Union. Then, just before Christmas 1939, his mother died. It was a heavy loss for Bartók, but now the greatest tie that bound him to Hungary was broken.

Before embarking on an account of his emigration to America, it is necessary to say something about his health before 1940. Bartók had first shown evidence of tuberculosis when he was an adolescent. In the summer of 1900 while on a holiday in Austria with his mother, he developed pneumonia with a high fever and pleurisy. Returning home to Pozsony (the place of his birth), he was initially given a diagnosis of “fatal tuberculosis.” He was then seen by Dr. Gábor Pávai Vajna, head physician of the state hospital, who suggested high-altitude treatment. In a certificate documenting Bartók’s condition, Dr. Gábor also indicated that he had a pleural effusion, “apicitis” involving the apical segment of the right lung, and that he had experienced “pulmonary hemorrhages” (hemoptysis or coughing up blood). Dr. Gábor effusively praised the “tender, loving, self-sacrificing” care of his mother. He missed several months of his second year at the Liszt Academy traveling with his mother to Meran in South-Tyrol. The rest treatment was successful and with good nourishment he gained weight, some four kilograms.6 Gyula Holló (1890-1973), the Bartók’s family physician during the 1920s, believed that fear of tuberculosis shadowed his life thereafter. Béla Bartók Jr., the only child of his first marriage to Maria Bartók (née Ziegler), recalled that when he was seventeen his father took him to have a chest X-ray, even though he had no symptoms, and was relieved to learn that it was normal.7

Béla Bartók Jr. believed that during the last year his father spent in Hungary, 1940, “the prodromes of his later disease [leukemia] manifested themselves more and more strongly.” In August 1943 Bartók wrote to his publisher, Ralph Hawkes of Boosey & Hawkes, that: “I can hardly play the piano, there is a pain in my right shoulder.” He sought the medical treatment of Dr. Lajos Bilkei Pap at the “rheumatics ward” of the Gelbért Bathes, even during the preparations for his American tour.8 The treatment included “short wave diathermy” and “massages” that extended from July to October and was deemed expensive, almost equivalent to his monthly salary. Bartók experienced similar musculoskeletal pains while in America, which he attempted to control with salicylates, concluding that the treatments he received in Hungary were worthless. Bone pain can be a symptom of chronic myeloid leukemia (the disease that claimed Bartók’s life), but there is no way to be certain that this was the cause of the symptoms Bartók experienced while still in Hungary.

During the 1930s, Bartók was able to move freely around Europe performing concerts. He arranged a concert tour in the United States from April to the middle of May, 1940. The tour included a prestigious appearance at the Library of Congress and a recording of Contrast (1938) with the violinist Joseph Szigeti, the famous clarinetist Benny Goodman who had commissioned the work, and Bartók playing the piano. Life in America was not totally new to Bartók. Twenty-five years earlier, in the winter of 1927-1928, he had successfully played concerts across the United States, performing with Hungarian colleagues including Fritz Reiner and violinists Joseph Szigeti and Jelly Arányi. For Bartók the tour in April 1940 would explore the feasibility of his moving to the United States. During this visit Jenõ Antal, a member of the Roth Quartet, conceived the idea of a connection with Columbia University that would give him the opportunity to pursue his interests in folk music. The result was an appointment as a Visiting Assistant in Music from January 1941 to December 1942 with an honorarium of $3,000 a year. This opened the way for him to emigrate to the United States.

Leaving Hungary, traveling across Europe, and crossing the Atlantic in wartime were part of a perilous undertaking. Visas to enter the United States were easily obtained, but transit visas across France and Spain proved more difficult and took weeks to obtain. There was no certainty that Italian visas would be granted. By October 1940, he and his wife were ready to depart. He prepared his will, stipulating that as long as any street, square, or monument dedicated to Hitler or Mussolini remained in Budapest, none should be named for him. On the eighth of October, he and his wife gave a farewell concert that included Bartók’s performance of Bach’s A-Major Keyboard Concerto, Ditta playing the Mozart Concerto in F-Major (K. 413), and together they performed the Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos (K. 365).

They traveled first by train through Milan and on to Geneva. From Geneva they crossed southern France by bus. Difficulties arose when they reached the Spanish border. Authorities forced them to leave behind 310 kilos of luggage, which was to be returned before they were scheduled to leave Lisbon by cargo ship for New York. They expected to have three days in Lisbon, but when they arrived on October 19, they learned their ship was to leave the next day, forcing them to depart Europe without their luggage. Eventually the luggage did reach them in New York on Christmas Eve of that year.

Leaving his native Hungary was a painful decision. As Bartók remarked in a letter to a close friend in Basle, Switzerland, on the eve of their departure: “This voyage is, actually, like plunging into the unknown from what is known but unbearable.”9 It meant leaving his close circle of friends and professional colleagues. Most of all, it meant leaving members of his family. His son, Bela, was now thirty years old and married. Their son Péter, only sixteen years of age and a secondary school student, would remain behind in Budapest under the supervision of his older brother. Close friends included the composer Zoltan Kodály and his wife Emma Gruber. Kodály and Bartok had collaborated at the turn of the century on their groundbreaking ethnographic studies of folk music. Their studies led them to collect and classify the peasant music of Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Walachia, Turkey, and Arabian North Africa. Bartók was recognized throughout Europe both as a soloist and composer. His works in many genres included: his opera, Bluebeard’s Castle; two concertos for solo and orchestra; six groundbreaking string quartets composed between 1909 and 1939; the Cantata Profana; Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta; and many works for piano solo.

His son Béla was to handle his father’s financial affairs and the house on Csalán Road where he and his family had lived since 1932. Today the site has become the Belá Bartók Memorial House.10 Bartók had not intended to emigrate and expected to return after the war. In 1945, writing about his years in America, he referred to himself as a “voluntary refugee.”11 His status when he entered the United States was technically that of a “visitor.” When Hungary entered World War II on June 26, 1941 as an Axis Power declaring war on the Soviet Union, he gained the additional status of an “enemy alien.”

The Bartóks spent their first several months in America actively performing. The New Friends of Music sponsored a concert just days after their arrival with Bartók and Ditta performing his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion at New York’s Town Hall. A few weeks later, they gave a duo-piano recital playing works by Mozart, Debussy, and Bach, as well as pieces from his Mikrokosmos. This was followed by a tour with performances in San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, and St. Louis.

Béla Bartók and Ditta Bartókné Pásztory
Fig 2. Béla Bartók and Ditta Bartókné Pásztory. Photo by Reismann Marian. 1939. Hungarian Museum of Photography.

During their first month in America, they lived at The Buckingham Hotel located in midtown Manhattan. On December 7, 1940, they moved into a fifth-floor apartment in Forest Hills, Long Island. They were twenty minutes away from New York by subway. In letters Bartók described their process of “Americanization,” eating “cracked wheat” for breakfast and mastering the subway—they once spent three hours “traveling hither and thither in the earth” only to return home “shamefacedly,” their mission incomplete.12 Traveling the New York subway system, he noted: “Human beings ruminating like cows . . . every second person chewing gum . . .”13

Eventually he found the apartment in Forest Hills intolerable because of the sound of radios and pianos from other apartments, street noise (automobiles), and the rumble from the subway. They moved again to 3242 Cambridge Avenue in the Bronx to a three-story house with quiet neighbors. Their apartment was closer to Columbia and the surrounding area reminded him of Budapest with an attractive nearby park.14

In March 1941 he began his work at Columbia University. George Herzog, who had influenced the decision to give Bartók a research position at Columbia, suggested he investigate a large collection of folk-song recordings made in the field by Harvard professor Milman Parry in 1934-35. Within the collection were 200 discs of Serbo-Croatian “women’s songs” that Bartók prepared for publication, made possible by a grant of $2,500 by the Alice M. Ditson Fund. The importance to Bartók of this “scientific work,” as he described it, cannot be underestimated.15 He wrote to Zoltán Kodály:

I am working now in a wing of the Columbia University, at the phonographic archive of Herzog’s. The Equipment is excellent. I almost feel as if I were continuing my work at the Hungarian Academy of Science, only in slightly altered conditions. Even the setting resembles its nobility. When I cross the campus in the evening I feel as I were passing the historic square of a European city.16

This letter, written on December 8, 1941, coincided with the American declaration of war against Japan and Germany. Suddenly the Bartoks were cut off from news of their son Péter, who had encountered difficulty securing transit visas “through the wild-beasts-land.” Finally, in February 1942 after four months without any news, Péter sent a cable from Lisbon that he was departing for New York. The name of the ship was deleted by the censors. Purely by chance, on April 20, 1942 Bartók encountered his son at the 231st Street subway station in the Bronx. As Péter described their reunion: “As I was searching for a taxi at 231st Street, I found instead a white haired man with a familiar briefcase who looked from the back just like my father. What a small place New York is!” Péter’s remarkable journey from Hungary had taken four months and included three weeks on board a freighter as one of two passengers.17

For the Bartóks, the joy of this reunion was clouded by new concerns about his health. In a letter written on December 31, 1942 to Mrs. Wilhelmine Creel, one of the most notable of Bartók’s pupils, he mentions:18

. . . since the beginning of April: since that time I have every day temperature elevation (of about 100 degrees) in the evening, quite regularly and relentlessly! The doctors can’t find out the cause, and as a consequence, can’t even try a treatment. Is that not rather strange? . . . in Oct. I had a lecture in New York at the Musicological Society. It was aggravated by a dinner and discussions: when I came home, I had 102.19

Bartók consulted Dr. Gyula Holló (1890-1973) who admitted him to several hospitals in New York for evaluation, but a cause for his fevers could not be found. Dr. Holló had been the Bartók’s family doctor in Budapest during the 1920s. His impressions of Bartók as a patient and friend can be found in Malcolm Gillies’ Bartók Remembered, where he recalls that the composer, through incomparable self-discipline, was able to avoid the posture of a “sick man.”20

On January 21, 1943, Béla and Ditta gave the first performance of Bartók’s Concerto for Two Pianos with the Philharmonic-Symphony Society with Fritz Reiner conducting. The piece was a reworking of his earlier sonata for two pianos and percussion. The public had seemed receptive, the critics less so. It would prove to be Bartók’s last public concert.

He had received a commission of $2,000 to give a series of six lectures at Harvard on folk music, but after giving the third lecture in March 1943 on “New Hungarian Art Music,” he was too ill to complete the commission. In addition to recurrent fevers, Bartók reported that he had dropped to “the ridiculous weight of 87 [lbs.].”21 Holló again admitted him to the hospital for observation and testing without conclusive results. Professor A. Tillman Merritt, head of the Department of Music at Harvard University, called in Dr. Bernard S. Oppenheimer, an eminent New York cardiologist, to consult on Bartók’s case.22 The patient agreed to be re-hospitalized under Oppenheimer’s care at Mount Sinai Hospital and the expenses were covered by Harvard. Oppenheimer brought in a distinguished group of consultants, assuring that Bartók would receive the best medical care available. Dr. Oppenheimer told Professor Merritt that he and Bartók got on splendidly, as Bartók was somewhat afraid of him since he would not let the patient run his case. He felt Dr. Holló had a hard time as they were close friends and Holló “had not the heart to lay down the law a bit to him.”

It is worth quoting at some length from the letter Dr. Oppenheimer wrote to Prof. A. Tilman Merritt on the Mount Sinai hospitalization. Dr. Oppenheimer’s letter to “My dear Professor Merritt” was sent on a Sunday evening, May 28, 1943. He asks to be forgiven the delay in not answering his last letter sooner as he wanted to wait until he had come to a “definite opinion as to Mr. Bartók’s condition.” He writes in longhand as he did not want to wait for his secretary on Monday, noting: “Alas, my handwriting is terrible.” Bartók’s chest X-ray convinced him that his fever, as well as his loss of appetite and strength, was caused by an old tuberculosis of his lung that had flared up. “In addition, he has a secondary polycythemia [an abnormal elevation of red blood cells] which may or may not be associated with complications of his tuberculosis. He has received four X-ray treatments to his bones for his polycythemia and in about two weeks another careful blood examination will be done by Dr. N. Rosenthal [Dr. Nathan Rosenthal, a noted hematologist] to determine whether further X-ray treatment is advisable.” One of his difficulties, his loss of appetite and weight loss to 86–87 lbs., he attributes to Bartók’s “peculiar ideas on what he will or can eat.” Dr. Oppenheimer defends the hospital food as “really very palatable” and mentions that Mrs. Bartók prepared “some of his favorite Hungarian dishes and brought them to the Hospital. Now on his return home, he will get the food he likes.” Oppenheimer continued to follow Bartók’s condition after his hospitalization, visiting him in his apartment. He turned the case back to Dr. Holló, recommending that Bartók go to a sanatorium for the treatment of tuberculosis during the summer months. In Oppenheimer’s correspondence with Tillman Merritt, he assures him of his complete confidence in Dr. Holló.23

The Bartóks lacked the financial resources to cover his medical expenses and Erno Balogh, one of Bartók’s earliest piano pupils, contacted the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and its president, Deems Taylor. Though Bartók was not a member of the society, the ASCAP took over the management of his case and over the next two-and-a-half years spent about $16,000 on his medical care, including his treatment at Lake Saranac and Asheville, North Carolina.24

In mid-March 1943 with financial support from the ASCAP, Bartók was again hospitalized at Doctors Hospital at 170 East End Avenue (Manhattan)25 under the supervision of the Hungarian expatriate Dr. Israel Rappaport for a seven-week stay that ended May 1943. Dr. Rapport had received his medical degree from the University of Budapest in 1918 and emigrated to the United States in the 1920s. He was a Fellow of the College of Chest Physicians and the Academy of Medicine. According to Rappaport’s recollection, a diagnosis of chronic myeloid leukemia was established, though Bartók was never informed of this diagnosis. Instead he was told that he was suffering from polycythemia, a disease with a better prognosis than leukemia. Writing to his brother Béla in Hungary in November 1945 after his father’s death, Péter told him in 1943 the doctors thought it was leukemia “but told us it was polycythemia.”26

It was during this hospitalization that the American-naturalized Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky visited Bartók in the hospital and offered him a commission that led to the first of two major compositions Bartók would complete during his years in America, his Concerto for Orchestra. Unbeknownst to the composer, the conductor Fritz Reiner and Joseph Szigeti had approached Koussevitzky about commissioning Bartók to write a work for orchestra. The commission stipulated that the work would be dedicated to the memory of Koussevitzky’s wife, Natalie, who had died a few years earlier. Bartók was to receive $500 on receipt of his acceptance and $500 on completion.

In July 1943, Dr. Rappaport and Dr. Edgar Mayer, a chest physician, sent Bartók to Saranac Lake for three months rest under the belief was that he was suffering from a relapse of his prior tuberculosis.27 Saranac was one of the oldest centers in America for the treatment of tuberculosis and located in the mountains of upstate New York. Saranac Lake was established by Dr. Edward Trudeau in the tradition of famous European mountain sanatoriums and admitted its first patients in 1885. Bartók stayed in a cure cottage owned by Mrs. Margaret Sageman. Dr. Mayer, recalling his visits with Bartók that summer, noted that “to compose he needed great silence” and resorted to ebony ear stoppers to achieve quiet. When one of his ebony earpieces got lost and he was in great distress, “I had the fortunate idea of trying an earpiece from my stethoscope. This he could not forget . . . It helped him more than any medical service I gave him.”28 The Bartóks remained at Lake Saranac from July 1 through October 12, 1943. He enjoyed a sustained remission of his symptoms, which allowed him to complete his Concerto for Orchestra.29

The Bartok Memorial House
Fig 3 The Bartok Memorial House, Csalán Road, Budapest. Photo by James Franklin

Fearing the ill effects of the winter months in New York, his doctors arranged for Bartók to spend the winter months in Ashville, North Carolina. Its climate and mountainous location made Asheville an attractive tourist location. In 1875 a Baltimore doctor, Joseph Gleitsmann, opened the first tuberculosis sanatorium in the area. A number of noted specialists were attracted to the city, which became noted for the treatment of tuberculosis. Bartók departed New York by train on December 16, 1943 alone, as there were not funds available for Ditta to accompany him. He remained in Ashville until April 26, 1944, staying at the Albemarle Inn. While in Ashville, Bartók worked on classifying and translating into English the texts to some 2,000 Wallachian folk songs. Between February and mid-March, he completed his Sonata for Solo Violin that had been commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin and produced a solo piano reduction of the Concerto for Orchestra. He also began work on his Third Piano Concerto, a surprise he was planning as a gift to Ditta for her birthday.

Dr. Rapport had referred him to Dr. C. Hartwell Cocke in Ashville, a highly recognized internist with thirty years’ experience treating patients with tuberculosis and other pulmonary diseases and a nationally recognized authority on diseases of the chest. During his stay he experienced a continued improvement in his health. Bartók had a lifelong love of nature, and taking long walks in the Blue Ridge Mountains reminded him of the Carpathians of his homeland. His fevers abated, though not completely, and he began to gain weight. By the end of January 1944, he was able to write to Szigeti that he had regained his strength and was enjoying walks in the mountain forests. His weight, which in March of the previous year had fallen to 87 lbs., was up to 105 lbs. “I am getting stout. Too stout. As stout as anything. You will not recognize me.”30

Carl Leafstedt’s account of Bartók’s months in Ashville includes a description of his accommodations at the Albemarie Inn, his activities, and the friends he made during this pleasant interlude in his American years. While missing his family and friends, his stay was brightened in late March when his son Péter split his two-week furlough from the Navy between visits to his mother in New York and his father in Ashville. Leafstedt believes that his doctors in New York must have still viewed tuberculosis as his primary problem, having chosen to refer him to Dr. Cocke, whose medical records do not survive. Bartók had been feeling healthy while in Asheville until April, when unambiguous signs of his underlying leukemia became apparent. Pain in the region of his left rib cage from enlargement of his spleen was initially mistaken by Dr. Cocke as pleurisy.

When Bartók returned to New York on April 28, 1944, he stayed at the Hotel Woodrow for the next couple of months. Ditta, who had remained in the city, was staying in a small apartment on 309 West 57th Street. His white blood cell count, which had previously been normal, was found to be 28,000. With his characteristic ironic tone, he wrote to Mrs. Creel about these events in December 1944:

. . . last April my spleen became rebellious. My Asheville doctor mistook it for pleurisy . . . fortunately I had returned to New York where the mistake was at once discovered and my spleen was punished by a rude X-ray treatment. Then it appeared there is a disorder in my blood picture, so they poisoned me with arsenic.

A few weeks ago, I said, “Tell me doctor, exactly what is my ailment is! Choose a nice Latin or Greek word and tell me.” After a moment’s hesitation he emitted: “Polycythemia.” There we are again! Only 2 years ago this meant too many red corpuscles, and now it means too many white ones.

If the final months of 1944 saw a decline in his health, he was to enjoy a wonderful performance of his Sonata for Solo Violin by Yehudi Menuhin in a Carnegie Hall recital on November 26, 1944. Olin Downes’ review in the New York Times, “Menuhin Thrills Capacity Crowd,” included several hundred soldiers seated on the stage and received a rewarding response of approval from the audience. Menuhin, who had the “audience in the palm of his hand,” led the composer back and forth upon the stage to receive their tribute.31 A few days later, Bartók traveled to Boston for the rehearsal and first performances on December 1st and 2nd of his Concerto for Orchestra by the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Koussevitsky conducting. In a letter to Mrs. Creel, Bartók described Koussevitzky’s excellent performance and enthusiasm for the piece, stating that “it is the best orchestral piece of the last 25 years (including the works of his idol Shostakovich!).”

The success of these two concerts signaled an improvement in his fortunes professionally. He received $1,400 in royalties and performance fees in the United States and Great Britain, Boosey & Hawkes signed an agreement advancing him $1,400 annually for the next four years, and he was commissioned a seventh string quartet. The Scottish violist William Primrose asked him for a viola concerto, proposing a commission of $1,000. Encouraging him to undertake this venture, he was given a copy of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, which features a viola obbligato, and Primrose persuaded him to listen to his broadcast performance of the Walton Viola Concerto with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The viola concerto and his third piano concerto would occupy his compositional efforts in the months ahead.

Early in 1945, he began to experience a series of health setbacks: colds, bronchitis, and finally pneumonia. Dr. Rappaport and the ASCAP were able to get permission to treat him with penicillin, which had been previously restricted to military use. In April 1945 Yehudi Menuhin invited the Bartóks to stay with him during the summer in California, but by June Bartok was forced to decline this invitation because of his own poor health, as well as that of his wife. Instead, the Bartóks traveled in June to Lake Saranac where they stayed in a rustic cabin at the edge of Lake Flower. While the war in Europe had ended in May, they were alarmed by the news they received from Hungary, as it was clear the Communists were no better than the Nazis. The likelihood that he would ever be able to return seemed years in the future. Before he could resume composing, he had to travel to Canada to the border town of Plattsburg, north of Lake Saranac, to obtain a new visa. It was a daunting process that took nine aggravating hours queuing up in lines at the U.S. Consulate.

During that summer, he was able to complete all but the last seventeen bars of the Third Piano Concerto, which he had composed for Ditta. He simultaneously worked on the Viola Concerto, writing to Primrose that it was nearly complete. In the end, the concerto remained unfinished at the time of his death. His friend Tibor Serly would prepare the work for publication, working from the composer’s original manuscript.

Statue of Bartók, Garden of the Béla Bartok Memorial House
Fig 4. Statue of Bartók, Garden of the Béla Bartok Memorial House, Budapest, Hungary. Photo by James Franklin. Sculpture by Imre Varga.

Bartok left Saranac Lake on August 30, 1945, earlier than they had planned. Both he and his wife were ill and he was again running a fever. They returned to the small apartment on West 57th Street. Dr. Rappaport, who had been seeing him daily, persuaded him to return to West Side Hospital by ambulance. Dr. Rappaport, recollecting Bartók’s medical status, mentions that in 1944 his white blood cell count (WBC) had been in a normal range (6,000–8,000) but by 1945 had risen to 100,000, and by September of that year, 250,000. He spent a difficult final week in the hospital and died on the morning of September 26, 1945 at the age of sixty-four. His final words to his friend Henry Lax were: “What I most regret is having to leave with a full trunk,” a reference to his final two concertos, the string quartet, and his Romanian, Slovak, and Turkish folk collections.

Following a funeral service at The Universal Chapel, Lexington Ave on September 28, he was buried at Fernhill Cemetery in Harsdale, Westchester County. The ASCAP arranged for him to be interred in a metal coffin so that his body might eventually be returned to Hungary. Bartók’s body was reinterred in Hungary forty-three years later in Farkastréti Cemetery in Budapest. His remains are buried next to the rest of his family: his mother Paula, Ditta, Béla Jr. and his wife Judith, and Bartok’s sister Ella and her husband.32

Leukemia, a disease first named by Rudolph Virchow (1821-1902) in 1845 as Weisses Blut (White Blood), is characterized by the uncontrolled proliferation of white cells in the tissues and blood. Bartók’s age, white blood cell count of 250,000, and painful enlargement of his spleen support a diagnosis of chronic myeloid leukemia. The disease is known to run a chronic course, eventually entering a so-called blastic phase that explodes into a fulminating acute phase. In the decades since Bartok’s death, there have been many advances in the understanding and treatment of myeloid leukemia. The first advance was the recognition in 1960 that many cases had an inherited chromosomal abnormality, the so-called Philadelphia chromosome. In the nineteenth century, patients were treated with arsenic, which reduced the white cell count but did not prolong life. It was replaced in the mid-twentieth century by non-specific cytotoxic agents that destroyed normal as well as malignant cells. Later, significant progress was made by the use of stem cell transplantation and interferon alfa. More recently, the prognosis for patients with chronic myeloid leukemia has been greatly improved by the development of drugs that target specific molecular abnormalities. The prognosis is much improved since Bartók’s death in 1945.

In a portrait of his father, “The Private Man,” Bartok’s older son comments that his father had many interests beyond music. “His love of nature was religious in its devotion.” He collected insects, plants, and minerals and avidly studied the specialist botanical literature. His passion for collecting is evident in his study of folk music. It is telling that he named his progressive six-volume collection of 153 progressive short pieces for piano Mikrokosmos, literally “little life,” the equivalent of insects. As he approached death, he was able to draw on his love of nature to frame this metaphor:

Now the dead trunk is decorated once again. Life begins here in its slow way—encroaching imperceptibly as did death before. The eternal cycle . . . a layer of death—a layer of life . . . layer upon layer to the core of the earth.

Life invades those dead bodies (the tree trunks) claiming them entirely for its own and will cover every inch of them with glittery fresh green as the dead bodies sink away under the living weight, their existence fulfilled and completed.33



  1. Aligheri Dante, The Diovine Comedy, Paradiso, Canto XXVII, 58. John Bartlett, Familiar Quotations, Fourteenth Edition, Little Brown and Company, 1968. p.162.
  2. King James Bible, Exodus 2:22.
  3. Malcolm Gillies, Bartók in America, The Cambridge Companion to Bartók, edited by Amanda Bayley, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp.190-201. This chapter provides an excellent summary of the propaganda that emanated from Hungary on Bartók’s years in America.
  4. Amanda Bayley, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Bartók (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 27.
  5. Halsey Stevens, The Life and Music of Béla Bartók, Third Edition prepared by Malcolm Gillies, Oxford University Press, 1993. p.81.
  6. Béla Bartók, Jr., Béla Bartók’s Diseases, Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientarium Hungaricae, Vol. 23: 427-441, 1981.
  7. Béla Bartók Jr., The Private Man, The Bartok Companion, Ed. Malcolm Gillies, Amadeus Press, 1993, p. 25.
  8. Ibid. Béla Bartók, Jr., Béla Bartók’s Diseases.
  9. Béla Bartók Letters, edited and annotated by Janos Demeny, St. Martin’s Press, 1971, p. 284.
  10. Béla Bartok Memorial House, edited by Márta Mobos Strack, Berks Pres Bt. 2020.
  11. Béla Bartók, My Activities During the War, Benjamin Suchoff, Béla Bartók Essays, University of Nebraska Press, 1976, p. 434
  12. Ibid. Halsey Stevens, p. 93.
  13. John O’Shea, Was Mozart Poisoned? St. Martin’s Press, 1990, p. 231.
  14. David Cooper, Béla Bartók, Yale University Press, 2015, p. 332.
  15. The scholarly literature on Bartók’s ethnomusicological studies is available. We suggest “Béla Bartók: The Father of Ethnomusicology,” David Taylor Nelson, Musical Offerings, Vol. 3 (2), 75-91, 2012.
  16. Ibid. Halsey Stevens, p. 94. Letter dated December 8, 1941
  17. Peter Bartok, My Father, Homosassa, Fl. Bartók Records, 2002, p. 50.
  18. Ibid. Béla Bartók Letters. A frequent correspondent with Bartok during his years in America, Mrs. Wilhelmine Creel studied under Bartók in Budapest from March 1936 to June 1937. As a pianist she had a Master of Music degree from the Chicago American Conservatory. She studied the Chinese language and philosophy in Beijing and promoted in recitals the piano works of Bartók.
  19. Ibid. Béla Bartók Letters p. 324, The full text of the letter Bartók sent to Mrs. Creel in Seattle, Washington on December 31, 1942 can be found.
  20. Malcolm Gillies, Bartók Remembered, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1999, p. 181.
  21. Ibid. Halsey Stevens, p.98 from a letter to Mrs. Creel, June 28, 1943.
  22. Carl Leafstedt, Asheville, Winter of 1943-44: Béla Bartók and North Carolina, The Musical Quarterly, Summer 2004; 87:219-258, No. 2.
  23. Vera Lampert, Bartók at Harvard University as Witnessed in Unpublished Archival Documents, Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, 35, 113-154, 1993. The correspondence between Merritt Tillman and Israel Oppenheimer is included as an appendix to this article.
  24. Ibid. Malcolm Gillies, Bartók in America, p. 198 for a summary of Bartók’s finances.
  25. Doctors Hospital, a 210-bed medical facility located between 87th and 88th Streets on East End was founded in 1929 and operated until it closed in 2001.
  26. Ibid. Béla Bartók, Jr., Béla Bartók’s Diseases, p. 440. On p. 438 the author states that: “in April 1942 . . . Dr. Gyula Holló found ‘atypical myeloid leukemia.’ This was the first time the word ‘leukemia’ was used in his case in an official document.” The source of this document is not given, a diagnosis of chronic myeloid leukemia was probably not made until April 1944 when he returned from Asheville, North Carolina.
  27. Vilmos Juhasz, Bartók’s Years in America, Occidental Press, 1981, p. 56.
  28. From Historic Saranac Lake Wiki: https://localwiki.org/hsl/Béla_Bartók. Accessed November 2021.
  29. David Cooper, Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, Cambridge Music Handbooks, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 18-20.
  30. Ibid. Béla Bartók Letters, p. 330.
  31. Ibid. David Cooper, Béla Bartók, p. 361.
  32. His son Péter Bartók (1924-2020) died on December 7, 2020 in his 97th year in Florida. He anglicized his name to Peter and professionally trained and worked as a sound engineer, initiating the Bartók Record Label that issued several of his father’s performances. The ashes of the famous Hungarian-born conductor and interpreter of Bartók’s music, Sir Georg Solti (1912-1997), were interred beside the remains of Bartók in the Farkastréti Cemetery following a state ceremony in Budapest.
  33. Sturrock, Donald (director), After the Storm – The American Exile of Béla Bartók, BBC Television 1989. Quotation from Appendix C, p.234, Who Poisoned Mozart? Medical Investigations into the Lives of the Great Composers, John O’Shea, St. Martin’s Press, 1990.



JAMES L. FRANKLIN is a gastroenterologist and associate professor emeritus at Rush University Medical Center. He also serves on the editorial board of Hektoen International and as the president of Hektoen’s Society of Medical History & Humanities.


GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 14, Issue 1 – Winter 2022

Fall 2021  |  Sections  |  Music Box

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