Harriet Cohen

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I’ve been fascinated by Harriet Cohen since I read “A Bundle of Time” in the 1970s. What a truly appalling woman she seems to me. What on earth was the attraction for Arnold Bax? I think Arnold Bax was a great composer but a terrible love rat; he treated both his wife and Harriet Cohen shamefully.

However, an old friend of mine can confirm that she still loved Arnold Bax very much to the end. As a very humble music librarian he answered the library telephone in 1953 and Miss Cohen launched into a request for a work for a BBC concert in memory of him (Bax). My friend was not used to such effusiveness in the usual calls from orchestral librarians or being called “darling” in every other word but her personality and loyalty remain with him. He wasn’t name-dropping, he was quick to point out he never met her.

So, I turn to The Life and Loves of Harriet Cohen by Helen Fry. The big problem with this book is its novelettish, Mills & Boon tone. The second, and more significant problem, is its inaccuracy.

The book is seriously flawed by a determination to take at face value the words and writings of a woman only one up on the dependability scale from Joyce Hatto.

For example, the claim that Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” was dedicated to Harriet Cohen is at best a misunderstanding, at worst a plain fabrication. The work was and is dedicated to the great Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes, and was premiered by José Cubiles with the Madrid Symphony Orchestra under Enrique Fernández Arbós. Now the composer may well have written a dedication into Harriet Cohen’s copy, in gratitude for a performance well done; but her attempted hijacking of the piece is all too typical of her behaviour towards Bax’s own work.

His musical reputation suffered immeasurably as a result for years. When it comes to private lives, as Hamlet says, which of us should’st ’scape whipping? The important thing to get right here is to separate fact from fantasy, and this Helen Fry’s book dismally fails to do.

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One Response to “Harriet Cohen”

  1. […] Original post by Robin Gosnall […]

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