Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Harriet Cohen and her Visit to Dartmouth Naval College

I recently found a volume of autobiography by the composer Vivian Ellis (1903-1996) in a second-hand bookshop near Leicester Square. He is, as Wikipedia inform us best known for his song ‘Spread a Little Happiness and his descriptive miniature tone poem Coronation Scot, which was used as the theme tune for the radio programme Paul Temple. However there is much more to the man than these two works. He was a composer, a pianist, a lyricist and stage show producer. Alongside this activity he seemed to know everyone in the music business- both ‘classical’ and ‘popular.’ His autobiography is called I’m on a See-Saw which is the name of one of his ‘greatest stage hits.’ Every page seems to have a good story, a witty anecdote or a surprising minor revelation. I have chosen a charming little paragraph about a wartime visit of the great pianist Harriet Cohen to Dartmouth College as a little taste...

"I even went in for a little Adult Education on my own account, by bringing Harriet Cohen, through E.N.S.A., down to Dartmouth College to give a piano recital to the cadets. She arrived at Kingswear station with rather a lot of luggage for one night, which had to be ferried across the Dart. It included a folding dumb piano, a huge suitcase obviously made of lead, a sandwich basket of equal proportions-although she apparently ate nothing-as well as a small but promising lending library. On her arrival at the College, she gaily announced she had left her spectacles in the train - which could be seen departing from the station-and not one note could she see (and the ominous word 'perform' hung unspoken in the air) without them. The station master, who had fortunately retrieved the missing spectacles, handed them to me at the end of my mad dash in a picket boat and all went according to plan. Miss Cohen, shivering in evening dress, held the audience with her personality and sheer quality of her playing, which, I noticed, was of her own high standard. She never made the mistake of playing down to her audience. Instead, she took them into her confidence and explained what she was about to play before each item. During her recital, a few of us heard about the loss of Singapore. There were a great many losses to bear in those days, and England bore many of them alone."
Ellis, Vivian I’m on a See-Saw: An Autobiography (London: Michael Joseph, 1953)

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