Harriet Cohen: a story of love, lust, betrayal and Amersham
This article was written by Helen Fry and is published here with her permission
Albert Einstein called her ‘The Beloved Piano-Witch’, many famous men were besotted by her. Internationally acclaimed concert pianist Harriet Cohen was both beautiful and talented and became a household name in the 1920s and 30s. In spite of many lovers that included DH Lawrence, Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bennett, HG Wells and British Prime Ministers Lloyd George and Ramsay MacDonald, there was only one man she truly loved – the composer Arnold Bax, a man 12 years her senior and married with two children. Harriet inspired something deep inside Bax which sparked his creativity and compositions. He dedicated many pieces of music to her, most famously The Maiden With the Daffodil, and Tintagel. He was smitten by this ‘daughter of wild spring’ and wrote in early 1915: ‘I have voyaged back into the morning of the world for the dews of the first Dawn are in my love’s eyes.’ Their illicit love affair, which lasted nearly 40 years, was played out against the backdrop of some of the most dramatic moments of the twentieth century.
By 1916, at the height of the First World War, Bax had moved his family to Crossways in Beaconsfield. He looked for somewhere local for stolen moments with Harriet. They settled on the Crown in old Amersham where Bax hired a room for their passionate afternoons. Harriet, who lived in London, regularly took on the Metropolitan Line from Baker Street to Amersham to secretly meet him. He cycled there from Beaconsfield to meet her. Their time in Amersham elicited a burst of creativity for Bax and he composed one of his most exhilarating pieces, November Woods which he finished in 1917. It is based on a stormy day in the autumn of 1916, during torrential rain. After meeting Harriet at Amersham station, they ran down the hill to Old Amersham, hand-in-hand and sheltered in nearby woods. It was to be the inspiration too for an accompanying poem in which he expresses their running through the woods ‘like frightened children, silent, hand in hand, down the wet hill’. The anguish of their love, which marriage and society denied, is poignantly expressed in ‘hearts which stung with tears and the old ache was more than any God would have us bear’:
Like frightened children, silent, hand in hand,
Down the wet hill we stepped towards the flare;
Storm, a mad painter’s brush, swept sky and land
With burning signs of beauty and despair;
And once rain scourged through shrivelling wood and brake,
And in our hearts tears stung, and the old ache
Was more than any God would have us bear.
Then in the drowsy town the inn of dreams
Shut out awhile October’s sky of dread;
Drugged in the wood-reek, under the black beams,
Nestled against my arm her little head
And her child’s-mouth like some half-opened flower
Made April still for one sad sleepy hour;
And we said naught; for no word could be said.
A clock chimed, and the enchanted veils were stripped,
And we went out to take the London train
And storm and moonlight fell on us and whipped
The warm false comfort out of us again.
We knew under the chill wind-shaken glare
Between our clinging breasts Love huddled there
With gaze awry and breath caught up for pain.
During the days when they were apart, a flurry of love letters were exchanged between them, unsuspected by Bax’s wife Elsa. Over 3,000 letters survive in Harriet Cohen’s archive at the British Library. The passion and poetry in them are arguably the most eloquent and best of the last century. Harriet became the mouthpiece for many of Bax’s new works, some of which were dedicated to her and which she premiered in concert halls in Britain, across Europe and in America.
Their relationship seemed invincible and indestructible. It led to Bax leaving his wife and children in 1918, but he could never live with Harriet because Elsa refused a divorce. Then from the late 1920s, for over twenty years, Bax hid a terrible secret from Harriet and one which had devastating consequences, as told in Helen Fry’s book, Music & Men: the Life and Loves of Harriet Cohen.
Harriet travelled to Vienna in 1933 to play in a number of concerts. Whilst there, she was entertained at the British Legation where British Passport Officer and spymaster, Thomas Kendrick, was based. He and his staff attended her concert and entertained her at a soiree afterwards, probably in his apartment. He enjoyed her lively company, intelligent conversation and sharp political awareness. His own political views always remained close to his chest. Their conversation would have turned to the serious situation unfolding for the Jews of Germany and he could reassure her that, if Hitler invaded Austria, Austrian Jews had a ready friend in him and he would do all he could to help with exit visas. The experiences in Vienna had a profound affect on Harriet and awakened in her the beginnings of her Jewish consciousness.