Arthur Cohn

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A versatile and highly prolific figure, Arthur Cohn was among contemporary classical music's most noteworthy composers and conductors, perhaps best known as an author whose works celebrated the diversity…
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A versatile and highly prolific figure, Arthur Cohn was among contemporary classical music's most noteworthy composers and conductors, perhaps best known as an author whose works celebrated the diversity and accessibility of the classical form. Born in Philadelphia in 1910, Cohn studied the violin at the nearby Combs Conservatory of Music as well as the University of Pennsylvania; later, at the Juilliard School, he studied composition under Rubin Goldmark. Cohn first made a name for himself upon returning to his hometown, and from 1934 to 1952 he headed the Fleisher Music Collection at the Philadelphia Free Library, followed by a four-year tenure as the director of the city's Settlement Music School. Concurrently, he also emerged as a performer -- during the 1930s, he founded the Dorian Quartet and the Stringart Quartet, a pair of ensembles specializing in new music -- as well as a conductor, for many years leading the orchestra of the Symphony Club of Philadelphia in addition to the Haddonfield Symphony Orchestra in New Jersey.

Cohn's symphonic works included 1939's Music for Ancient Instruments, a concerto for five antique instruments with a modern orchestra; 1941's Flute Concerto; 1945's Variations for Clarinet, Saxophone and Strings; 1964's Kaddish; and 1970's Percussion Concerto. His chamber scores included 1937's Machine Music for two pianos, a half-dozen string quartets composed between 1928 and 1945, and 1958's Quotations in Percussion, a composition for six musicians designed for play on a staggering 103 instruments. As an author, Cohn published 1961's The Collector's 20th-Century Music in the Western Hemisphere and 1965's 20th-Century Music in Europe, works considered the standard texts on the post-Debussy repertory. After working as a critic for American Record Guide for a number of years, Cohn also assembled the award-winning Recorded Classical Music: A Critical Guide to Compositions and Performances in 1981.

In addition to his books on contemporary music and recordings, Cohn published two collections of musical puzzles, 1970's Musical Quizzical and 1988's Musical Mind Benders. His final work -- the four-volume, 3,000-page Literature of Chamber Music -- was published posthumously. Somehow, amidst this flurry of activity, Cohn also found time to further promote contemporary works while directing the concert music divisions of publishers including Mills Music (1956-1966), MCA Music (1966-1972), and Carl Fischer Co. (1972-1998). Always a tireless promoter of classical music, his feats were often the stuff of legend: most famously, he smuggled the scores of Shostakovich's 13th, 14th, and 15th symphonies out of the Soviet Union, later arranging for their American premieres and first recordings. In 1994, the American Music Center awarded Cohn a letter of distinction for his contributions; he died in Manhattan on February 15, 1998 at the age of 87.