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Harriet Cohen: alluring woman, great pianist devoted to Bach

Harriet Cohen (1895-1967) was one of the leading British pianists of her age, but her unusually small hands (“I cannot normally cover more than eight notes with each hand”) led her naturally to specialize in intimate classical and pre-classical works, rather than in any thundering octaves of nineteenth-century piano music. She was peerless in Mozart and Bach.

Cohen as a person was alluring both on- and offstage, and legion were those who fell under her spell — musicians and others alike. To Edward Elgar she was “Harrietinachen,” and for William Walton “my dear, sweet, neglected Harriet.” Ralph Vaughan Williams claimed multiple kisses as rewards for the music he wrote for her, and H.E. Bates was “devoted to her music.” Harriet was on familiar terms with both Einsteins Albert and Alfred, and to Albert she was “Der lieben Klavierhexen.” Prime Minister J. Ramsay Macdonald, although equally bewitched, was merely showing necessary discretion when he wrote to the pianist as “your indebted servant” (another Downing Street letter expressed hope for the chance, on his way to Upper Frognal to sleep, of “knocking at your door”). But, above all, it was her friend and lover the composer Arnold Bax whom Harriet Cohen held in thrall for his whole life through.

Cohen’s devotion to Bach resulted in 12 of the composers who most admired her (or her playing) to collaborate on an album of new piano transcriptions, collectively dedicated to her, and which Oxford University Press in 1932 published as A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen. The contributors included Arthur Bliss, Herbert Howells, John Ireland, and Constant Lambert, as well as Bax and Vaughan Williams. The pieces range from piano versions of Bach chorale preludes to the Andante from Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. What Harriet’s small hands made of the huge spreads and chords in Vaughan Williams’s contribution is not known: she never recorded this, or any of the other items. For a performance by Harriet of the collection at Queen’s Hall, London in October 1932 “one of the contributors” wrote a note for the programme booklet, explaining the collaborators’ remarkable gift to the pianist. “She has always been an intense enthusiast for the music of Bach … and her composer friends considered that a collection such as this would furnish an opportunity of providing her with accessible piano versions of certain fine things originally composed for the organ, voice, or some orchestral combination.”

While many of the Bach transcriptions made by celebrated twentieth-century piano virtuosi were designed to showcase their own spectacular talent, there was also a vogue, in the 1920s and 30s for arrangements which mined the same “accessible piano version” vein of Harriet’s Bach Book. Many music publishers capitalized on this: J & W Chester, for example, published dozens of transcriptions by Walter Rummel. Oxford University Press numbered amongst its own arrangers Dame Myra Hess, Leonard Borwick (a Clara Schumann pupil), the Bach scholar William Gillies Whittaker, and Harriet Cohen herself. While most of the transcriptions were issued as solo piano items, some were versioned as well for two pianos, or piano duet, both methods naturally resulting in richer sonorities.

Of the dozens of Bach piano transcriptions issued, a few became well-loved, even iconic. Hess’s version of Jesu, joy of man’s desiring has never been out of print. Harriet Cohen related that her recording of her own transcription of Beloved Jesu, we are here was played “at five minutes to six every morning to the troops under Field-Marshal Montgomery’s command.” These transcriptions were published during the short window of time in which musical scholarship and imaginative re-creation of a baroque composer’s works were able happily to merge, unnoticed and un-criticized. In short order the “authenticity” rear-guard action was to advance and, by the end of the second war, such transcriptions had fallen out of favour, and thus mostly out of print. Whittaker was one of the most eminent British Bach scholars of his day, yet in his re-working of items “found singly in old MSS” containing “no indications of strength, speed or phrasing,” he did not hesitate to pepper the editions with tempo instructions, dynamics, and phrasing, and shifts of register and octave doublings, creating almost new but certainly eminently pianistic works from Bach’s originals.

The Bach Book and almost all of the individual transcriptions were long out of print, but the recent resurgence of interest in piano transcriptions as works of art in their own right resulted in, among other things, a fine new recording of Harriet’s collection by Jonathan Plowright and the reissue of her work. “So deeply has the spirit of the master entered her,” wrote one critic of Harriet, “that she has few, if any, equals as a Bach player.”

Recent Comments

  1. […] at Oxford University Press, a portrait of Harriet Cohen throws light on one of the leading British pianists of the early twentieth-century, who was also an […]

  2. Paula Powell

    My mother used to work for Harriet Cohen when I was a little girl in London aged around 4/5 at the time .

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