The distinguished English pianist, Harriet Cohen, studied piano first with her parents. She studied then at the Royal Academy of Music from 1912 to 1917. She took an advanced course in piano with Tobias Matthay, and later taught at his school.
Harriet Cohen made her first public appearance as a solo pianist at the age of 13. She then engaged in a successful career in England, both as a soloist with major orchestras and in chamber music concerts. Small hands limited her repertory, but she quickly made a reputation as a Bach player and also played many contemporarily composers. She played at the Salzburg Contemporary Music Festival in 1924, at the Coolidge Festival, Chicago. She became particularly associated with contemporary British music, and a number of composers wrote music specifically for her. She gave the world premiere of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Piano Concerto, dedicated to her, in 1933, and recording Edward Elgar's Piano Quintet with the Stratton String Quartet under the composer's supervision. Sir Arnold Bax, who was her life-long friend and occasional lover, wrote most of his piano pieces for her. This includes the Rhapsody in F sharp minor for Piano and Orchestra, which was first performed at the Royal Albert Hall on August 19, 1943, and the music for David Lean's 1948 film version of Oliver Twist. The last six pieces in the collection Mikrokosmos (known as Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythms), by Béla Bartók, are also dedicated to her.
In 1948 Harriet Cohen was the victim of a domestic kitchen accident. As she was pouring a glass of water, the glass shattered in her right hand. She played works for the left-hand alone until 1951. Arnold Bax was inspired to compose for her his Concertino for Left Hand, a Neo-Classical work. Her injury was never completely cured and in 1960 she reluctantly retired. She was made a CBE in 1938, a Freeman of the City of London in 1954, and received many honours from other countries. The Harriet Cohen International Music Prizes were founded by Arnold Bax and others in 1951.
In 1932 twelve leading British composers published transcriptions in A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen. She herself published some Bach transcriptions and a small book on interpretation, Musicís Handmaid (London, 1936, 2nd edition 1950), while her memoirs, A Bundle of Time (London, 1969), are valuable for letters from friends eminent in all walks of life. In January 2006, Dearest Tania, a words-and-music programme telling the story of Cohen, premiered, written by Duncan Honeybourne and performed with actress Louisa Clein. The love affair between Arnold Bax and Harriet Cohen was the subject of a 1992 BBC television show in which Glenda Jackson played the role of Harriet Cohen.