Harriet Cohen

2 Dec 1895
13 Nov 1967
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Harriet Cohen CBE (2 December 1895 – 13 November 1967) was a British pianist.

Harriet Cohen was born in London and studied piano at the Royal Academy of Music under Tobias Matthay, having won the Ada Lewis scholarship at the age of 12 followed by the Sterndale Bennett Prize in 1913. She made her debut at a Chappell’s Sunday concert at the Queen’s Hall a year later.

Her first major appearance was in 1920 when she appeared at the Wigmore Hall in a joint recital with the tenor John Coates.

She became particularly associated with contemporary British music, giving the world premiere of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Piano Concerto (which was written for her) and recording Edward Elgar’s Piano Quintet with the Stratton Quartet under the composer’s supervision.

A number of composers wrote music specifically for her, including John Ireland, Béla Bartók, Ernest Bloch and E. J. Moeran, and particularly Sir Arnold Bax (Cohen’s lover), who wrote most of his piano pieces for her.

This includes the music for David Lean’s 1948 film version of Oliver Twist. He also composed Concertino for Left Hand for her after she lost the use of her right hand in 1948.

The last six pieces in the collection Mikrokosmos by Bartók are dedicated to her.

Harriet Cohen dedicated an important effort to the performance of the Tudor composers at a time when this was unusual, and gave recitals of works by William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons and also of Henry Purcell.

She was considered one of the finest performers of J. S. Bach’s keyboard music, winning outstanding praise from the musicologist Alfred Einstein. Pablo Casals, also, invited her to play Bach with his orchestra at Barcelona, and Wilhelm Furtwängler extended a similar invitation on hearing her in Switzerland.

She gave the first ‘all-Bach’ recital at the Queen’s Hall in 1925.

She also cultivated Spanish music, and gave the second performance of Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, a work which became especially associated with her. She was also an early exponent of music of the Soviet Union in Britain, and visited Russia in 1935 to broadcast from Moscow and Leningrad, including works by Shostakovich, Kabalevsky and Leonid Polovinkin. These composers later sent her further compositions.

Cohen’s influence went well beyond that of a musician. She became strongly associated in the 1930s with publicising the plight of German and Austrian Jews and even played a concert with the scientist Albert Einstein (Alfred’s cousin) in 1934 to raise funds to bring Jewish scientists out of Germany.

She became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and Ramsay MacDonald as well as the first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann.

Cohen was also a close friend of many leading figures of the time. These included not only musicians such as Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sir Edward Elgar and Sir William Walton, but also writers such as Arnold Bennett, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells and D. H. Lawrence as well as politicians or entrepreneurs such as Max Beaverbrook and Leslie Viscount Runciman. Cohen became one of the most talked-about and photographed musicians of her day.

She was Vice-President of the Women’s Freedom League, and was for several years associated with the Jewish National Fund and the Palestine Conservatoire of Music at Jerusalem. Cohen was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1938. She died in London. The Harriet Cohen International Music Award was introduced in her honour in 1951.

She was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1959 when she was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at the BBC Television Theatre.

In January 2006, Dearest Tania, a words-and-music programme telling the story of Cohen, premiered, written by Duncan Honeybourne and performed with actress Louisa Clein.

Harriet Cohen met the American journalist Dorothy Thompson in 1930 on her first tour of America, a tour which took in New York, Washington and the Library of Congress and Chicago, thus finally establishing a name for herself on the International stage. It was a meeting that was to change Cohen’s life and awake her Jewish consciousness. In 1933 Harriet Cohen traveled to Vienna to play a number of concerts, staying with Dorothy Thompson.

She was profoundly moved by the plight of refugees, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who were pouring into the city from Germany. Thompson and Cohen were to correspond about the plight of Jewish refugees in Austria and Germany. Cohen was then able to pass on information from Thompson directly to the British Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, who was at this time her intimate friend.

Cohen met Thompson every time she went to America thereafter. From 1933 Cohen committed herself to work in Britain and the United States on behalf of refugees. This would result in a concert in America with Albert Einstein in 1934 to raise funds to bring Jewish scientists out of Germany.

In 1935 Ramsay MacDonald warned Cohen not to travel through Germany because the British Government would not be able to provide immunity for her. Soon after, Adolf Hitler passed the Nuremberg laws totally excluding Jews from public life.

Harriet Cohen had met Albert Einstein in Germany in 1929 when she had afternoon tea at his house. At the time Einstein disclosed that he played the violin and said that one day they should play together. Cohen kept her friendship with Einstein even after he had fled Germany in 1933. Cohen would often visit him in Oxford, England where he settled for a short time.

In 1934, after Einstein moved to USA, Harriet Cohen did finally play that duet concert with Einstein to raise funds to bring Jewish scientists out of Nazi Germany. Cohen and Einstein remained friends thereafter and he referred to her as “the beloved piano witch”.

It was not until 1939 when she first met Chaim Weizmann, the future first President of Israel, that she began to support the Zionist cause and a Jewish homeland.[5] Cohen’s 1939 visit to Palestine extended her reputation there both as a concert pianist and politically. She argued with British and Jewish officials to try to get Jewish refugees admitted on ships from Nazi Germany (rather than be returned), once almost precipitating an International incident.

Harriet Cohen believed passionately in a Jewish homeland but with justice to the Arab Palestinians. She survived two assassination attempts during her trip to Palestine.

It was when Cohen was having dinner with Weizmann in London that Weizmann heard the news of the British Government’s 1939 white paper to limit Jewish immigration to Britain to just 15,000 people a year. Blanche Dugdale, Lord Balfour’s niece, a fellow diner, prophetically said in an agonised voice, “What will happen to the millions fleeing from Hitler?”

The visit in spring 1935 by Cohen to the Soviet Union was another major milestone in her career. It was the country from which her ancestors had fled 100 years earlier.

Not only was Cohen bringing British music to the USSR by playing pieces by Vaughan Williams, Bax, Bliss and Ireland, she also performed Shostakovitch’s Preludes, Kabalevsky’s Sonatina, and the Soviet premiere of Leonid Polovinkin’s Suite from manuscript. Thereafter she took their music all over Europe and was acclaimed as the first musician outside the USSR to learn Shostakovitch’s Twenty-Four Preludes, which he composed in 1932 and 1933.

Her contribution in bringing to the attention of the world the work of unknown Russian composers is often forgotten.

“One day I will let my music give itself up to love – love without strife or fret or circumstances – just the praise to you”. “My mouth longs for your soft mouth…”. These are just two quotes from the love letters between Sir Arnold Bax and Harriet Cohen.

Harriet Cohen’s love affair with Bax lasted for over forty years until he died in 1953. It was Bax who gave Harriet Cohen the name “Tania”, by which she was affectionately known by close friends and family.

Their passionate affair started in 1914 when she was 19 and he was 31, although they had met two years earlier. Bax was creatively inspired by Cohen and in 1915 wrote for her within 13 days three pieces including “The Princess’s Rose Garden”, “The Maiden with the Daffodil” and “In the Vodka Shop”.

Some believe that their time together inspired his famous tone-poem Tintagel, in which he may have in part expressed his anguish at “the dream their world denied”.

The affair led to Bax’s ultimate decision to leave his wife and children in 1918, but they could never live openly together because Bax’s wife refused a divorce. Neither could their relationship be recognised publicly because of the social climate of their generation.

Cohen possibly became pregnant with Bax’s child in 1919 but if she did, she lost the child in an early miscarriage. Harriet Cohen’s recently published letters reveal the turbulence and anguish of the relationship. Cohen always claimed that the long-standing affair denied her becoming a “Dame”, but this is not substantiated.

Through the 1930s their relationship became less passionate as her international career flourished, and Bax sought a quieter haven with his gentler mistress Mary Gleaves; nonetheless the affair continued and they remained close, as private letters between Cohen and Bax reveal. In 1936, for example, they travelled together to Stockholm and Helsinki and met Jean Sibelius, a composer who had long influenced Bax’s music.

On 23 September 1947, Bax’s wife Elsa (“Elsita”) died. Cohen probably expected to finally marry Bax after an affair that had now lasted 30 years.

Events were to unfold quite differently. Bax did not initially inform Cohen about the death of his wife, a fact she was to discover in May 1948 whilst recording the music that Bax had written for the film Oliver Twist, when Elsa’s will was published. A greater shock followed, when Bax revealed his secret twenty-year affair with Gleaves and his intention not to remarry.

This was at a time when Cohen was losing prominence in Britain, and in May 1948 Cohen had an accident with a tray of glasses, which severed the artery in her right hand thus restricting her performing career for some years.

When Bax died on 3 October 1953, Cohen was deeply affected by his death. His will bequeathed half of his interest from his literary and musical compositions to Cohen for life, and half to Mary Gleaves. After their death his royalties and estate were to pass to his children. Cohen also kept the London property that Bax had bought for her – throughout Cohen’s life Bax had financially assisted her.

Harriet Cohen was portrayed in three novels. D. H. Lawrence based the main character of Harriet in his novel Kangaroo on Cohen. Kangaroo was first published in 1923 and is set in Australia.

Rebecca West based the main character of Harriet in her novel Harriet Hume (1929) on Harriet Cohen. The novel is described as a modernist story about a piano-playing prodigy and her obsessive lover, a corrupt politician. The novel immortalised Harriet’s love affair with the composer Arnold Bax.

William Gerhardie cast Cohen as the heroine Helen Sapphire in the book Pending Heaven and much of what is written mirrors Cohen’s own life and character as well as her turbulent relationship with Gerhardie.

Helen Sapphire is a musician who performs successfully all over Europe. She plays the harp and the piano. Gerhardie personified himself in the central character of Max who dreams about Helen.

She was portrayed by Glenda Jackson in the 1992 Ken Russell film The Secret Life of Arnold Bax.

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