Music's Handmaid       (Harriet Cohen)
Item# B1126
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Music's Handmaid       (Harriet Cohen)
B1126. HARRIET COHEN. Music’s Handmaid. London, Faber & Faber, 1936. 160pp. Illus.; DJ.


“Harriet Cohen was born 2 Dec., 1895 in London and studied piano at the Royal Academy of Music under Tobias Matthay. She made her début at the Queen's Hall a year later. She became particularly associated with contemporary British music, giving the world premičre 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. The last six pieces in the collection Mikrokosmos by Bartók are dedicated to her. She was considered one of the finest performers of J. S. Bach's keyboard music, winning outstanding praise from the musicologist Alfred Einstein. Pablo Casals, also, invited her to play Bach with his orchestra at Barcelona, 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 Manuel 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 Leningrad, including works by Shostakovich, Kabalevsky and Leonid 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 (Alfred's cousin) in 1934 to raise funds to bring Jewish scientists out of Germany. She became close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and Ramsay MacDonald as well as the first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann. Harriet Cohen met the American journalist Dorothy Thompson in 1930 on her first tour of America. Thompson and Cohen were to correspond about the plight of Jewish refugees in Austria and Germany, and Cohen was then able to pass on information from Thompson directly to the British Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, who was at this time her intimate friend. From 1933 Cohen committed herself to work in Britain and the United States on behalf of refugees.

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.”

- Zillah Dorset Akron