In the spring of 1941 the Hungarian prime minister Pál Teleki faced a terrible decision: aid Germany in the invasion of Yugoslavia or refuse and provoke the German invasion of Hungary. Even for the conservative Teleki the choice was impossible. He avoided it by putting a bullet through his head. Six months earlier, Béla Bartók, among the most important musicians in the history of Western music, had left his native Hungary for New York. While Bartók was incomparably more liberal than Teleki, and his exit far more peaceful, both men’s actions signaled escape as the only moral response to Hungary’s slide into fascism.

The decision to leave Hungary cemented Bartók’s posthumous reputation as an artist of high moral integrity. It also ushered in the most difficult period of his life. Dogged by poor health, financial uncertainty, and marital troubles,...


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