THE SIR ARNOLD BAX
Music and Men: The Life and Loves of Harriet Cohen
By Helen Fry
The History Press LTD - 2008
Review by Richard R. Adams (with additional notes by Graham Parlett)
If Harriet Cohen is remembered at all today it is for her
relationship with Sir Arnold Bax and unfortunately time has not been
kind to her reputation either as an interpreter of his music or for
the influence she had on his personal life. Helen Fry’s new
biography of Harriet Cohen is therefore a must-read for all Baxians
as it provides a much fuller picture of this astoundingly resilient
and complicated woman who managed to endear herself to many of the
greatest musicians and politicians of her age as well as advocate
for multiple humanitarian causes; most notably Jewish refugees
trying to escape the horrors of Nazi Germany.
This new book also sheds light on her relationship with Bax
and makes it easier to understand why both were so enamored of the
other despite their many conflicts.
Regrettably, a fair amount of patience will be required when
reading this book as Ms. Fry was none-too-careful to check her
musical facts but hopefully future editions will correct these
errors. (See Graham
Parlett’s note at end of the review).
I can only imagine the number of hours Ms. Fry must have spent
pouring over the thousands of letters Harriet Cohen bequeathed to
the British Library that only became available for review in 1999.
The letters to and from Harriet are quoted extensively and
Ms. Fry provides commentary and biographical information to place
the letters in context and explain various gaps in the
correspondence. Sadly, there are few musical revelations as Bax
seemed reticent to discuss his music in his letters to Harriet but
we are provided with a very detailed history of their personal
relationship by means of some very intimate letters that frequently
make for uncomfortable reading.
I’m certain Ms. Fry’s interest in Harriet didn’t come by way of her
involvement in Bax’s music as her knowledge of it seems limited.
For example, on page 120 she refers to Harriet giving the
performance of “Tintagel” at the Queen’s Hall under Albert Coates.
Her role in the performance is not explained but I can’t
imagine she played in the orchestra!
Even more intriguing is a reference to a performance of Bax’s
Piano Quintet involving E.J. Moeran! There are multiple errors of
this sort and after a while they do begin to irritate as they could
have been corrected if Ms. Fry or her publisher had ran the text by
someone more familiar with Bax and I hope these errors are corrected
in future editions. I
would have also welcomed more background information on Harriet’s
youth although I’m sure that information is hard to come by.
Still, a scant five pages devoted to her “early years” is
really not adequate for a biography of this type.
The book really begins once Bax enters her life as at this
point the letters start flowing and we are provided with a most
thorough account of the early years of their relationship.
We should be grateful that Harriet was so careful to keep her
letters and make copies.
She obviously had an eye on posterity as she pleads with Bax
in one letter to keep her letters as she believed they would be of
interest to future readers “in about 60 years time”, she estimated.
So she wasn’t very modest but she did have foresight.
What is ironic is that the least interesting letters detailed
in this book, at least for me, are the early writings between Bax
and Harriet. Both come off as annoyingly self-absorbed and the
poetic prose gets pretty thick at times. Bax comes off the worst as
his letters seem so focused on the physical aspects of their
relationship – albeit in very romantic and colorful terms.
Harriet seems more realistic as she frequently complains to
Bax about his initial refusal to leave his wife and then once he
does, she keeps pushing him to get a divorce.
Bax gently avoids these issues, always bringing the
discussion back to how much he longs for her breasts. Harriet
responds to his flattery but she also displays a keen understanding
of Bax’s personality and moods and it becomes evident how she could
support him through periods of low esteem or creativity but also
badger him when she wasn’t getting what she wanted.
I was struck by how Bax never reacts in anger to her overtly
manipulative attempts to make him feel guilty or to her frequent
allegations of his being unfaithful.
Perhaps he knew she was right!
Still, the tone of his letters is always warm and loving and
he makes every effort to reassure her of his love even when we know
his feelings for her were cooling.
By the early 1930s, Harriet and Bax had pretty much moved on to
other lovers although neither was discussing this with the other
although you get the sense they knew it anyway.
It’s these later letters that are so endearing to read. By
this point they had come to accept each other’s less attractive
traits while at the same time remaining very affectionate and
concerned for each other’s well being and their sexual chemistry
appears to have remained strong as Bax never fails to comment on her
physical charms even well into the third decade of their
relationship. She in
turn does all she can to reassure him of the value of his music and
how her audiences responded to it.
Bax becomes a much less prominent figure as the book progresses and
it’s her life away from Bax that for me was the most interesting to
read because so little of her other life has been documented until
now. For instance, I
knew she struggled with poor health but I didn’t understand the
extent of it. It seems that
her bouts with tuberculosis and pleurisy were constant and many of
her letters describe her physical agonies and worries about death.
George Bernard Shaw, one of Harriet’s frequent
correspondents, offers her various remedies and frequently reminds
her to take better care of herself. Even when she was ill, she would
practice long hours.
She knew that in order to play up to the level that was expected of
her, she had to work harder than many of her colleagues as she
didn’t possess their technical gifts and she also had to compensate
for her very small
What impressed me most in reading this biography was discovering the
extent of her repertoire. She
was a Bach specialist and one of the first pianists to champion
early English keyboard music including the works of Gibbons, Purcell
and William Byrd. She
was an accomplished player of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven but it was
the music of her time that she championed most passionately and the
list of composers who wrote for her indicates just what a fine
interpreter she must have been in her prime.
For instance, she worked closely with Busoni and Manuel de
Falla dedicated Nights in the
Garden of Spain to her.
She championed Turina, Shostakovich, Kabalevsky, Stravinsky,
Bartok, Kodaly, Honegger, and just about all the major British
composers of the first half of the 20th Century wrote
their piano pieces for her.
It’s said that her abilities as a pianist began to taper off
after the late 1930s and this may have been due to the cumulative
effects of her poor health and erratic relationships but she
continued to give concerts well into the 1950s – even after the
accident during which she supposedly fell and severed the tendon in
her right hand. The fact this happened so soon after learning of
Bax’s 20-year relationship with Mary Gleaves is discussed but no new
revelations are made.
I regret that so few recordings of Harriet exist. Wouldn’t it be
wonderful to hear what she made of Bax’s piano sonatas when she was
capable of playing them well?
I’ve heard her Bach recordings and they’re remarkable for
being totally unmannered while at the same time wonderfully
expressive. What little
Bax she did give us is beautifully done although the live recording
of “Winter Legends” from the 1950s does indicate that by that time,
her best playing days were behind her.
The other aspect of her life that I suspect is little known today
was her commitment to humanitarian causes. A letter from the
American journalist Dorothy Thompson alerted her to the dire threats
facing the Jewish population in Nazi
Germany and Eastern Europe in the early 1930s. She used her
connections with British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and later
Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt to encourage the
United Kingdom and the
United States to allow more Jews and other
refugees from Nazi Germany to
emigrate. She was of
Jewish heritage herself although she wasn’t devout but she
understood anti-Semitism first hand and encountered a lot of it in
her efforts to advocate for the refugees including, most
unexpectedly, from William Walton in a letter he sent her on which
he drew a swastika as a “joke. ” This
incited a very angry return from her that he later apologized for
although even in his response, he expressed little sympathy for the
refugees, citing they all seemed to be staying in the “best hotels”
Helen Fry’s biography is a major but flawed accomplishment and is in
need of another edit for musical errors but Baxians should still
seek it out. Having
read so much negative press about Harriet Cohen over the years, I’ve
often wondered why Bax remained so attached to her and this book
gives some indications why.
In so many ways she was his equal – both were passionate and
committed to their causes whether it be the plight of Jewish
refugees or the need for Irish independence.
Both were hugely sensitive, creative and self-absorbed
artists but Bax was more the introvert and Harriet the extrovert and
this difference in their personalities created tensions and
ultimately made it impossible for them to live together but somehow
they remained devoted friends and it’s time we understood and
appreciated just how remarkable a person Bax’s beloved Tania
actually was. I’m very
grateful to Helen Fry for giving us this opportunity.
Graham Parlett writes:
Fry is a historian, not a musician, and the book inevitably contains
many errors that would not have been perpetrated by someone more
familiar with music and, in particular, that of Bax. In reading
through the book, I made a list of errors that ought to be corrected
for any future edition. I append them for the benefit of readers but
would emphasize that they should not detract from Dr Fry’s
achievement in helping us to understand and appreciate a quite
‘Tintagel Castle’ is a poem by Bax not a tone-poem (also
The date of birth given for Maeve Bax is incorrect; it should
January 1913, exactly one year after her brother.
In the Vodka Shop
should be In a Vodka Shop.
Bax was not a
millionaire, as stated here and elsewhere in the book; he was
comfortably well off, and when he died in 1953 the gross value of
his estate was £11,935.19.11d but the net value only £1,627.11.10d,
which would be about
£240,000 and £33,000 respectively in today’s money.
Bax’s poem ‘Amersham’ is incorrectly referred to as a
Balfour Gardiner was not Bax’s cousin (also on pp.122, 155).
‘Spleen’ should be ‘Speen’ (in Buckinghamshire).
I thought that it was Bax who led people to think that his
wife was a Roman Catholic and so would not divorce him. Surely he
himself would have known whether she was or not.
Cohen did not give the first London performance of
Tintagel, which of course
is for orchestra alone.
argue [agree?] with everything you say about Æ [George Russell]. His
coarseness, etc is revolting to me here’. I suspect that what Cohen
wrote in her letter was ‘AB’ (written as a ligature), i.e. Arnold Bennett, from whose
yacht she was writing. The context makes it plain that Æ is not the
person being alluded to. Similarly on p.172, I imagine that it
should be ‘G.B.S. [Shaw] and AB [Bennett]’ (not ‘Æ’).
‘de Falla’ should be ‘Falla’: in Spanish usage, the ‘de’ is dropped
the surname is used alone.
‘Nefastein’, as the name of an Egyptian queen, a misreading of
Cohen’s handwriting (for ‘Nefertiti’), or is Cohen making a joke?
Moeran did not direct the concert; he promoted it.
Glencolumcille is in Ireland, not
The ‘Lambert’ mentioned in the letter quoted is surely the
photographer Herbert Lambert of
Bath, not Constant Lambert.
have first returned from the V.W....concert’: ‘first’ probably a
misreading of ‘just’.
217 ‘Graz’ should be ‘Grez’,
Delius’s home (Grez-sur-Loing).
The reference should be to Elgar’s Piano Quintet not ‘Piano
Concerto’. 231 ‘It [a Kabalevsky concerto] is a lonely work rather
like Moeran’s music’: ‘lonely’ probably a misreading of ‘lovely’.
Time & Side should
be Time & Tide.
Léon Goossens was indeed the son of Eugene Goossens (II), but the
person referred to here was his elder brother, the conductor Eugene
‘BBC Broadcasting Corporation’ should be ‘British Broadcasting
Corporation’ (or just ‘BBC’).
The George Cross island
of Malta has become a
QC. ‘Gardens in the
Nights of Spain’
should be ‘Nights in the Gardens of
should be Morning Song.
suspect that ‘Ken Knight’ of the BBC should be ‘Kenneth Wright’.
should be ‘Monteux’.
290-9 are missing at the back (p.305), and apart from some obvious
misprints (e.g. ‘Eygpt’ three times) there are several misspellings
that should have been spotted by a copy-editor: ‘plain’ for ‘plane’
(p.185), ‘muted’ for ‘mooted’ (p.203),
‘dignatories’ for ‘dignitaries’ (p.291), ‘Cincinatti’ for
‘Cincinnati’ (p.291). ‘Æ’ [George Russell] has become strangely
accented in several places: ‘Ǽ’. I am also puzzled by some of the
uses of ‘[sic]’ in transcriptions from letters; and surely it should
not be used after American spellings in quotations from American
newspapers (e.g. ‘program [sic]’).
familiar photo shows Cohen and Bax holding the manuscript of the
Left Hand Concertante after its Prom performance at the Royal Albert
Hall on 25 July 1950, but unfortunately the caption for this picture
is wrong: ‘Harriet with Bax just days before the accident with the
tray of glasses, May 1948’. The author has incorrectly assumed that
the photo (which also appears on the back cover of the book) was
taken at the recording sessions for Oliver Twist ― the time when
Cohen discovered the existence of Mary Gleaves.