Harriet Cohen – (Harriet Cohen by Clara Kinghoffer oil on canvas, 1925 Primary Collection)
The pianist Harriet Cohen enjoyed an almost unequalled breadth of communication, of access, to the creative minds of her day. There can be little doubt that this was in some part due to her irrestistible glamour, as well as a spell-binding, and radical approach to the piano.
‘I had eyes for only two, Rebecca West and T S Eliot. The shyness of this great man lessened the awe I felt in his presence. We talked of cats and I remember purring like one. He was much amused. ‘It is my only real talent’, I said.’
However, she clearly understood that there were limits; it was one thing to discuss Elgar’s influence on Gustav Holst with T.E.Lawrence – it would have been quite another, a true breach of etiquette, to suggest this to the composer.
‘The close proximity of Elgar, seeing him nearly every day for long spells, filled me with radiance, shy though I still was with him … Although he was a gentle and loving character, Elgar had a ready fund of impish humour and, if he had not he caustic wit of Shaw, he was no stranger to irony…It was in the presence of Elgar, when he drove over from Worcester, that bound us all together. My few conversations with T E Lawrence were mostly about Elgar and his music. We felt it had a healing quality. Lawrence shared my love for the 2nd Symphony to a particular degree. He liked my idea of the last movement being ‘like a molten blaze of sunlight across a great sky. This is music that never began and never will end; it goes on in a sphere.’…I even whispered to him my idea that the stirring drum passages in the Symphony were the direct influence on Holsts’s planet – Mars - bit I never dared ask my friend Gustav Holst if this was so.’
Harriet Cohen’s artistry was intimately linked to her ability to communicate with artists, philosophers, composers, and politicians. One might say that it was her social networking that finished her career, as it was a fall with a tray of drinks which so badly injured one of her hands that she could not return to the keyboard.
‘Harriet Cohen has had cancel her two Prom concerts and her appearance at the Kentucky Music Festival where she was to appear with Stravinsky and Honneger. Her last performance before the accident was of Bax’s composition of piano music to accompany Oliver’s entrance in the film Oliver Twist.’ The Daily Graphic 27th July 1948
Cohen gradually discovered the joy of being a composer’s performer. She was told that Elgar had gained enormous pleasure from her recording of his great Piano Quintet, very much her piece. She wrote:
‘This is it. This is the why of my being. I belong to the composers and not to myself’.
Music and Men, The Life and Loves of Harriet Cohen, Helen Fry, The History Press, Gloucester, 2009
Quoted in: The Musical Times, Vol. 110, No. 1515 (May, 1969), p. 495