Pianists From The Past: Harriet Cohen

Pianists From The Past continues today with this interesting article featuring British pianist Harriet Cohen, which has been written by Japanese pianist Maiko Mori, who enjoys a busy performing career alongside teaching the piano at the University of Chichester.

Photo: Harriet Pearl Alice Cohen CBE

Harriet Cohen (born in London Dec. 2nd, 1895 – died in London Nov. 13th, 1967), was one of Britain’s most distinguished concert pianists, noted for her talent and admired for her courage. She studied the piano at the Royal Academy of Music under Tobias Matthay, having won the Ada Lewis scholarship at the age of 12. She made her debut at Queen’s Hall, London, in 1914.

I first came across her name back in 2009, when I devoted myself to researching early twentieth-century British music.  I developed my interest in her as she was involved in the lives of various British composers at that time.

At a time when English music was unknown in her own country, she pioneered works by the great Elizabethan composers such as Byrd and Orland Gibbons.

Her repertoire was immense, and ever-increasing, and although she was considered one of the finest performers of J.S Bach, she covered the whole range of keyboard music. Her spontaneous sympathy for the music of contemporary composers led her to form close personal friendships with most of the leading composers of the day and to give first performances of Elgar, Walton, Bax, Lambert, and many others.

It is no accident that she is one of the few artists to whom Béla Bartók dedicated a work. It was said – and it is probably true – that she gave more first performances of works than any other pianists of her time. Bax and Vaughan Williams were among the composers who wrote piano pieces for her. Manuel de Falla dedicated his work, Nights in the Gardens of Spain G. 49, to her and she performed the piece many times.

Harriet Cohen by Fred Daniels c.1921

Her interpretation of Bach was more ‘expressive’ than would now be readily accepted. I find her use of the sustaining pedal makes Bach’s works sound more Romantic, yet she is not afraid of exploiting the possibilities of the piano to the full by using the pedal. Despite such expressive performance, it’s fascinating that the contrapuntal lines are brought out with great clarity by understanding the purpose of each voice, coupled with her firm technique.

Here is her performance of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C sharp major BWV 848 and C sharp minor BWV 849:

Here is another highly expressive performance by Harriet. To me, this is one of the most moving accounts of Chopin’s music that I have ever heard. What makes this performance so special is her richness of tone, utterly beautiful, painful, and passionate tones which stabbed one to the heart. Again, this is all done with her excellent understanding of the structure.

Listen to the recording of Harriet’s Étude Op.25 No.7 by Chopin:

Not only talented, Harriet was noticeably beautiful, and many famous men fell in love with her.

In spite of many lovers, including DH Lawrence, Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bennett, HG Wells and British Prime Ministers Lloyd George and Ramsay MacDonald, there was only one man she truly loved – the composer Arnold Bax, a man 12 years older than her and married with two children.  Her passionate love affair with Bax spanned more than thirty years. Bax was creatively inspired by Harriet, and wrote for her many pieces of music, most famously The Maiden With the Daffodil (1915), and Tintagel (1921).

Harriet Cohen and Arnold Bax (1920)

Here is another rare recording, featuring Bax’s Paean (1920):

Bax’s wife Elsa died in September 1947. Harriet believed that now Bax would marry her, but Bax revealed his dark secret twenty-year affair with Mary Gleaves and his intention not to remarry.

In 1948, Harriet had badly injured her right hand by dropping a tray of glasses, and played one-handed till 1951. Bax wrote the Concertante for Left-Hand for her in 1949. Her injury was never completely cured and in 1960 she reluctantly retired.

Maiko Mori


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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