Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 September 2011
Ever since his Academy graduation in 1903 Bartók had looked forward to visiting America. His piano teacher István Thomán had encouraged him to attend the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St Louis in 1904, but this plan fell by the wayside as Bartók failed to develop the same international following as a pianist that his model, Dohnányi, had done.
It would be another quarter of a century before Bartók finally visited the United States. For ten weeks in the winter of 1927–28 he undertook a successful coast-to-coast tour, sometimes in association with such Hungarian colleagues as the violinists Joseph Szigeti and Jelly Arányi, and the conductor Fritz Reiner. He hoped to return soon as he liked the people and concert fees were comparatively high. Moreover, Hungarian-American friends persuaded him in 1928 to enter his Third String Quartet in a competition of the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia, for which he subsequently won joint first prize of $3,000. But the Depression put an end to his plans for an American return. The Philadelphia prize money instead helped to maintain something of his standard of living in the early 1930s. Bartók's second visit, of April–May 1940, was altogether more purposeful. Although performing in numerous concerts, including a prestigious appearance with Szigeti at the Library of Congress and recording his recent Contrasts (1938) with Benny Goodman and Szigeti, Bartók's aim was to determine if he should move to the United States. That brief visit provided him with a strong, and unexpected, reason to do so.