Music & Men: The Life & Loves of Harriet Cohen

Albert Einstein called her ‘The Beloved Piano-Witch’. Many famous men were besotted by her.

Internationally acclaimed concert pianist Harriet Cohen was both beautiful and talented and became a household name in the 1920s and 30s. At the heart of this first biography is an epic love story between Harriet and the only man she ever truly loved – composer and married man Arnold Bax. Based on previously unpublished love letters between them, the book charts their unquenchable relationship which set them on a turbulent forty-year path of love, lust and betrayal. The passion and poetry in their letters are arguably the most eloquent and best of the last century. They shared something far deeper than most lovers, something that touched the creative core of their souls – music. Harriet became the inspiration and mouthpiece for many of Bax’s new works, some of which were dedicated to her and which she premiered in concert halls in Britain and abroad. Their relationship seemed invincible and indestructible.

This indomitable woman of courage, who overcame a tragic miscarriage and ten-year life-threatening struggle against TB, attracted many famous public figures throughout her life. She was a forceful and politically-minded artiste who once refused to break an engagement at Mussolini’s bidding. Proud of her Jewishness and Englishness, always striking in appearance and elegant in dress, she was a personality with great wit and a conversationalist whose friends included George Bernard Shaw; D.H. Lawrence, Arnold Bennett and HG Wells. DH Lawrence immortalised her in Kangaroo and it is he who is thought to have given her TB after a brief affair. In the music world, her close friends included Sir Edward Elgar; the Finnish composer Sibelius; Vaughan Williams and William Walton. Politically, her friends included Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister; Lloyd George, Eleanor Roosevelt; and Chaim Weizmann, the first President of Israel. Her close friend Rebecca West based her novel Harriet Hume entirely on her.

Bax dedicated many pieces of music to her, most famously The Maiden With the Daffodil.Harriet & Bax

He told her, ‘You steal into my imagination so frequently and with so much dance and light, setting many vital rhythms tripping and hammering.’ He was smitten by this ‘daughter of wild spring’ and wrote in early 1915: ‘I have voyaged back into the morning of the world for the dews of the first Dawn are in my love’s eyes.’

During 1917-1919, against the backdrop of WW1, their relationship moved to new levels when Bax joined Harriet for a two-week holiday in Cornwall in the summer of 1917 and again for six weeks in 1918. Their time together inspired his tone-poem Tintagel Castle in which he expressed his anguish at ‘the dream their world denied’, and the accompanying music piece called Tintagel.

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. It is likely that the long-standing affair denied her a ‘Dame’.

On the music scene, Harriet revived early Elizabethan keyboard music as well as championing the new piano music of the composers of her day, often playing new works from manuscript and for the first time. Other leading British composers like John Ireland, William Walton and Edward Elgar dedicated their music to her. Vaughan Williams, who had not composed piano music for twenty years, broke his silence and dedicated his new piano concerto to her.

Harriet CohenShe soon became one of the most influential pianists on the international stage and was described as ‘the English Ambassadress of Music in Europe’. She first visited Russia in 1935 and began to play the music of modern Soviet composers, including Shostakovich, Kabalevsky and Polvinkin. She is credited with being the first musician outside the USSR to perform their music.

Bax’s wife Elsa died in September 1947, something which Harriet did not discover until the will was published nine months later. She believed that now Bax would marry her, but he harboured a dark secret. His ensuing confession was to have devastating consequences…

This is the story of that legendary woman who overcame great personal tragedy to rise in personal triumph.



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