Cohen, Harriet (1895–1967)

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Cohen, Harriet (1895–1967)

English pianist who made the first recording of the Piano Quintet of Sir Edward Elgar. Born in London, England, on December 2, 1895; died in London, on November 13, 1967; daughter of musicians. The Harriet Cohen Medal was created in her memory.

One of Harriet Cohen's first memories was "playing on Paderewski's knee in the artist's room of the Queen's Hall at the age of six." She was born the daughter of musicians: her father was a well-known composer of orchestral and military music; her mother studied under the noted teacher Tobias Matthay (1858–1945). Also a student of Matthay, Harriet Cohen made her first solo appearance at the age of 13 and developed into a very individual performer who toured widely. She made a specialty of early keyboard music, and her Bach playing was highly regarded. Cohen made the first recording of the Piano Quintet of Sir Edward Elgar. Although she had small hands, she was the major exponent of the thick and complicated piano music of Sir Arnold Bax. Her romantic relationship with Bax, who called her "Tania," inspired him to compose a number of his best works, including his greatest orchestral composition, the moody and passionate tone poem of 1917, Tintagel. The great Hungarian composer Béla Bartok dedicated his Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythms to her.

"Her playing is clear, well shaped and very varied," wrote French critic Maurice Imbert. "She has a subtle touch and a strong sense of rhythm. She plays with sympathy, yet expresses herself with authority. The delicacy, grace, playfulness and tenderness of her interpretations, which are, at the same time, of a most expressive power, or full of animation, of fire, of color, prove the extent of her intelligence and convince one that she has cultivated the spirit. Everything has a personal accent."

In 1938, Cohen was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her services to British musical life. Though a hand injury in 1948 cut short her concert career, she continued to play with her left hand until 1961. That same year, the Harriet Cohen International Prize Medal was founded. She is the author of her memoirs and a book on piano music entitled Music's Handmaid.


Cohen, Harriet. A Bundle of Time. London: Faber and Faber, 1969.

Foreman, Lewis. Bax: A Composer and His Times. 2nd ed. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1988.

Stevens, Halsey. The Life and Music of Bela Bartok. NY: Oxford University Press, 1953.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia