Connecting the Dots: The Memorable Sol B. Cohen

My cousin David Rae Smith was only 15 or 16 years old when he met violinist, composer, conductor, and educator  Sol B. Cohen, then in his mid-forties, who was teaching and performing in and around Rae’s hometown of Asheville at the time. Hailing from Urbana, Illinois, Cohen had studied with French violinist Emile Sauret in Chicago and Jeno Hubay (also known as Eugen Huber) in Budapest, Hungary. Sol also studied under renowned violinists in Prague and Paris.

In his time, Sol was well-known and highly respected in the music world, perhaps especially in Hollywood during the silent film era of the 1920s. Silent films relied heavily on orchestral music to demonstrate on-screen emotions, and Sol wrote numerous film scores, including those of early filmmaking giants Cecil B. DeMille and D. W. Griffith. He was also a member of the first violin section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and was concertmaster of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, having been instrumental in the Bowl’s development. (Much of this information is courtesy of the Sol B. Cohen Papers, Illinois History and Lincoln Collection, University of Illinois Library.)

I have written about Sol and his equally musical brother Julius in David Rae Smith: A Life in Opera. Since the book’s publication, however, I have discovered a few other bits of information about him, all of which demonstrate his stature and explain why his faith in Rae’s future as a professional vocalist was so significant.

My latest book is available at Amazon.com.

It seems that Sol knew almost everybody, and he maintained voluminous correspondence with a number of those acquaintances, many of whom are noted in my book. Among his many friends and correspondents were William Maxwell and Max Frankel, both of whom had remarkable literary careers.

Fellow Illinoisian William Maxwell, fiction editor of The New Yorker magazine for nearly 40 years, was one of Sol’s contemporaries at the MacDowell Colony the legendary artists’ residency and workshop program in Peterborough, New Hampshire, which was founded by the husband-wife team composer Edward and pianist Marian MacDowell (and is now known simply as MacDowell). Sol participated in the program for ten years, which gave him a chance to meet many dozens of other artistic geniuses.

When Sol was in residence at MacDowell he stayed in the Veltin Studio. Others who lived and worked in this cottage include composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein, thrice Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, and first female Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress Louise Bogan, as well as Thornton Wilder, who put the finishing touches on the play Our Town here.

In the book Conversations with William Maxwell, the author tells this story. “I drove to Lake George with another colonist, the violinist Sol Cohen, from Urbana. He was an impulsive driver and did not read the road signs carefully, and we got lost and at dusk found that we had been driving north when we should have been driving south and east. All around us were mountains . . .” I can believe it. In Sol’s letters to his brother Julius he often mentioned that his car was inoperable for one reason or another. Perhaps the vehicle was  a clunker, but his driving may have had something to do with its ongoing problems. Sol had his own story about getting lost. One foggy night he got so turned around he abandoned his car altogether and had to walk to the nearest house, which was not actually very near, to get straightened out.

Pulitzer Prize winner Max Frankel, former long-time executive editor of The New York Times, knew Sol from their shared years at High Valley Camp in Canton, North Carolina, in the 1940s when Frankel was a teen and Sol was a music teacher/counselor who also oversaw the camp’s entertainment programs. Soon after his arrival at the camp as a laborer, Frankel was promoted to camp counselor, making him the youngest staff member. His new role meant he could stay up late with other counselors, learning, as he said in a personal interview, “to smoke Luckies, to drawl out my speech, and to double-clutch to drive a truck full of campers on our weekly trips.” It also meant he got to know Sol better and “we soon collaborated on making music and listening to his record collection.” The two sang “whole albums of songs” and regularly performed at area churches and recitals during Frankel’s four summers there.

In The Times of My Life and My Life with The Times, Frankel shared vivid memories of Sol. Before Frankel turned to journalism, he gave serious consideration to careers in both music and art. At High Valley Camp, Sol became enamored with Frankel’s vocal talent and each year cast him in the lead role of that year’s opera production. Sol corresponded with Julius, voice teacher to a number of future opera standouts, about the boy’s talent. Julius even showed up at camp one year to see for himself. According to Frankel, the two brothers “swore that I could make it to the Metropolitan Opera,” and Frankel became Sol’s “four-year project.” The brothers even made arrangements for further training from a famed New York City voice coach.

In a 1949 letter to Julius, Sol explained he was disinclined to teach at the camp that summer. “Another reason why I’d rather NOT be here is that good Max Frankel will definitely not be here. He writes me pathetically of his decision, and thinks he will, eventually go on with his singing.” Unfortunately for the music world (though not for the world of journalism), soon after Frankel began his formal New York training, he realized the cost and time commitments required for an opera career, including extensive language study in French and Italian, were too much for him and his parents and he “quit opera forever.”

Frankel also held Sol’s tutelage in high regard. The late camp evenings together were the reason the teenager developed a lifelong appreciation of opera and why he learned to value serious symphonic composers such as Stravinsky. In our recent electronic correspondence, Frankel said of Sol, “Though he was a violinist by profession, his piano playing was prodigious. He could recall whole scores of musicals and transpose at will into any key to accommodate singers.” Frankel was equally impressed with Sol’s dynamism. As he penned his memoir fifty years later, he wrote, “Perpetually bent at the sacroiliac, he could nonetheless leap from the piano stool, pluck his violin for a few bars of ‘Buttercup,’ then pound the keys again from a crouched position and, between chords, bare-handedly conduct the H.M.S. Pinafore finale.”

Sol’s letters home often mentioned his back troubles and his attempts to get relief from various practitioners. In 1951 he wrote Julius, “I suddenly wrenched my back again and the old spinal trouble came back with a bang. I felt like an old cripple for a few days. My boys were angelic. They made my bed for me, helped me with dressing, and did everything they could to make my life easier.” Frankel recalled, “Sol was a man of enormous enthusiasms, for music of every kind and for young people he could instruct. He was serious about music but endlessly generous to anyone he deemed responsive.”

However, as is probably true for all teachers, Sol had complaints about some of his charges, though more often those there for the school year than for the summer camp. Once he confided to Julius that the younger boys “have consistently gotten on my nerves all this year.” Another letter noted, “The kids leave me alone not a second.” Yet another grumbled, “I felt all year as if I were a therapist: a job that ill suits me.” Frankel told a different story. “Indefatigable and infinitely tolerant of children of every age, Sol supplied candy before dinner, even lunch, and he let lazy campers hide in his cabin during work period—if, that is, they’d sit still for a symphony.” Indeed, Sol’s overall attitude towards his young students must have been positive, for he continued teaching in boarding schools and camps in Canton, Asheville, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, as well as spending twenty summers at Crystal Lake Camps in Pennsylvania where he led the camp orchestra.

There is far more to the Sol B. Cohen story than is noted in either my book or this blog post, and I anticipate sharing some of it in weeks to come. For now, I hope you, too, have found it fascinating to connect some of the dots between Sol’s own words and what others had to say about him.

Young Sol with his Italian-made Gagliano violin.

2 thoughts on “Connecting the Dots: The Memorable Sol B. Cohen

  1. Interesting! My aunt by marriage was a violinist. She grew up in Hungary and met my uncle when she was in college in the U.S. She played with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra, and was concert mistress for a while. We heard her play at the Waikiki Shell in 1960 when we visited them.

    Liked by 1 person

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