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


She was born in London and studied piano at the Royal Academy of Musicmarker under Tobias Matthay, having won the Ada Lewis scholarship at the age of 12. She made her debut at a Chappell's Sunday concert at the Queen's Hallmarker 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 (known as Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythms), by Béla 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. Pau Casals, also, invited her to play Bach with his orchestra at Barcelonamarker, 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 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 Leningradmarker, including works by Shostakovich, Kabalevsky and 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 in 1934 to raise funds to bring Jewish scientists out of Germany. She became close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and Ramsey MacDonald as well as the first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann.

Cohen was also close friends with many leading figures of the time. These included not only musicians such as Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Walton but also novelists 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 Jerusalemmarker. Cohen was made a CBE in 1938. She died in London. The Harriet Cohen International Music Award was introduced in her honour in 1951.

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.

Jewish consciousness

Harriet Cohen met 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 the American journalist 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, Ramsey 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 the British prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald warned Cohen not to travel through Germany because the British Government would not be able to provide immunity for her. Soon after 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. 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?".

Russian composers

The visit in Spring 1935 by Cohen to Russia (formerly 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, Arthus Bliss and John Ireland she also performed Shostakovitch's Preludes, Kabalevsky's Sonatina and the Soviet premiere of 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 sadly often forgotten.

Relationship with Sir Arnold Bax

"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 and the pink petals of your beautiful breasts". These are just two quotes from the recently published love letters between Sir Arnold Bax and Harriet Cohen.

Harriet Cohen's love affair with Arnold Bax lasted for over forty years until he died in 1953. It was Arnold Bax who gave Harriet Cohen the name "Tania" for 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".

Many believe that their time together inspired his famous tone-poem Tintagel castle in which he expressed his anguish at "the dream their world denied". Their insatiable love led to Bax's decision to leave his wife and children in 1918, but they could never live together because Bax's wife refused a divorce. Neither could their relationship be recognised publicly because of the social climate of their generation. Cohen did became pregnant with Bax's child in 1919 but she lost the child in pregnancy. Harriet Cohen's recently released letters reveal the turbulence and anguish of their separation and love. It is likely that the long standing affair denied her becoming a "Dame". Through the 1930s their relationship was less passionate as her International career flourished nonetheless the affair continued and they remained close as the private letters between Cohen and Bax reveal. In 1935, for example, they travelled together to Stockholm and met Sibelius. A meeting which was to influence Bax's music.

On 23 September 1947, Bax's wife Elsa died. Cohen would probably have expected to finally marry Bax after an affair that had now lasted 30 years. However events were to unfold quite differently. Bax did not even tell Cohen about the death of his wife. In fact she was only to discover this in May 1948 at a time when she was practising and recording with Bax the music that he had written for the film "Oliver Twist". She only found out about Elsa's death when her Will was published but there was another shock for Cohen. Bax revealed to Cohen that he had another secret twenty year love affair with Mary Gleaves and was making no promises to marry anyone. This was a time that whilst Cohen was losing prominence in Britain she was playing to huge acclaim in America and Internationally. On discovering Bax's affair with Gleaves in May 1948 Cohen had an accident with a tray of glasses which severed the artery in her right hand thus restricting if not practically ending her performing career.

Bax died 3 October 1953. Cohen was deeply affected by his death and it was the moment she had always dreaded. Bax's will bequeathed half of his interest from his literary and musical compositions to Cohen for life and half to Mary Gleaves. After their death that passed to his children. Cohen also kept the property that Bax had bought her. In fact throughout Cohen's life Bax had always financially assisted Cohen.

Other relationships

The British Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald is one of her more prominent relationships. Harriet Cohen became close to MacDonald during the period when he was Prime Minister from 1929-1935, at a time of economic instability and depression which saw the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Europe. It was rumoured that MacDonald and Cohen became lovers. Their letters reflect a closeness; and she often visited him alone at 10 Downing Street and his home in Hampstead. Certainly many people did believe they were lovers and Cohen was often referred to as "the old man's darling".

Cohen was also close to Max Beaverbrook, the founder of Express newspapers and an important entrepreneur of the day. Cohen was introduced to the business tycoon Max Beaverbrook by Arnold Bennett in 1923. Beaverbrook was instantly charmed by Cohen and invited her to dine regularly with him from 1923 and through him met Lord Rothermere and Lloyd George. Beaverbrook and Cohen often met up at her house as noted in her autobiography "A bundle of Time". He was besotted with her in his own way and showered her regularly with a hundred or more roses.

Vaughan Williams was an intimate life long friend of Harriet Cohen. His letters to her reveal a flirtatious relationship, regularly reminding her of the thousands of kisses that she owed him. He was a regular visitor to her home and often attended Cohen's little parties that she held for her friends. She loved entertaining and inviting famous and prominent people.Cohen premiered Vaughan Williams "Hymn Tune Prelude" in 1930 which he dedicated to her. She later introduced the piece throughout Europe during her concert tours. In 1933 she then premiered his Concerto in C major for pianoforte and orchestra, a work which was once again dedicated to her. Cohen was given the exclusive right to play the piece for a period of time.

Harriet Cohen first played for Elgar in 1914 at a party when she was 18. They became close friends and this lasted until his death in 1934. In 1933 Cohen organised a concert in his honour under the patronage of the King and Queen. Undoubtedly Elgar doted on Cohen and closely followed her career giving her constant support. Under Elgar's direction she made the first recording of his "Piano Concerto" with the Stratton string quartet. Elgar had only sketched it but he gave the short score to Harriet for the recording.

H.G.Wells was part of Harriet Cohen's circle of male admirers from the 1920s. After Wells parted from writer and novelist Rebecca West, it is well known that Wells took up brief liaisons with other women. Harriet Cohen is highly likely to have been one of these as various letters from her private collection and interviews suggest. She had a magnetic personality and beauty which Wells found irresistible.

D.H.Lawrence became a close friend of Harriet Cohen's. It was clear already in 1915 that this friendship had created some tensions between Cohen and Arnold Bax. Bax protested at Cohen's closeness to Lawrence. She told Lawrence that they would have to meet secretly. In demonstrative mood that day, Lawrence scrawled across her autograph book ‘The door closed.’ A short time later Cohen contracted tuberculosis, possible speculation that she caught it from Lawrence who died of the disease in 1930. Cohen to Bax always denied any sexual relationship with Lawrence but many believed they were lovers. Nonetheless Lawrence and Cohen remained good friends and were regularly seeing each other as least as part of a group of friends up until his death. They would often talk together about the music of their common friend, the musician Elgar.

Cohen was introduced to Walton in 1923 by Arnold Bennett. They carried on a rather flirtatious friendship which Cohen described in her autobiography as "stormy but delightful". She wrote that the irritation they often felt for each other did not lessen the underlying affection. Cohen championed Walton's music both at home and abroad especially in the late 1920s and early 30's. On assigning to Cohen the premier performance of his Sinfonia Concertante in 1927 he said to her "I know it will be in safe hands".

However, her most important relationship was probably with Arnold Bennett. "Arnold Bennett, dear friend and mentor of my youth died on 27 March 1931" – wrote Cohen in her autobiography. Arnold Bennett was one of Cohen's closest friends and responsible for introducing her to many of her new friends. Bennett introduced Cohen to William Walton and Max Beaverbrook in 1923. Cohen was devastated on Bennett's sudden death from typhoid fever on 27 March 1931. She had spoken to him only a few days earlier when he had told her how unwell he was feeling. It was Bennett who had kept Cohen on the rails for over a decade giving her honest, blunt necessary advice. Cohen listened to him and respected his judgement. He had guided her when she was in her 20s when her reputation and fame was growing both at home and abroad.

Cohen in novels

Harriet Cohen was portrayed in three novels. D.H.Lawrence based the main character of Harriet in his short story 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 unfulfilled 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.

Further reading

  • Cohen, Harriet A Bundle of Time (1969)
  • Brook, Donald, Masters of the Keyboard (Rockliff, London 1955 printing), 151-152.


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