The story of Alec and Aviva, and how the musical blood runs through the family

Alec and Aviva Cohen, Members No. 355
By Jessica Harper about her grandparents-in-law

Alec and Aviva Cohen lived in Roseville, Sydney in a beautiful house surrounded by nature and gardens.

Alec’s love of Wagner was initially nurtured by his first connections with a certain Mr. Whitfield or ’Mr. Whitty’ whom he met upon entering university in Perth, and who gathered students around to listen to the great classics on his record player. He shared this newfound passion with his numerous siblings, who were similarly taken. Their shared love of classical music was to remain a firm bond among the siblings for the duration of their long lives.

Alec was the first Australian-born child born of Frida and Iosif, who had emigrated in the 1920s from Safed in the British Mandate of Palestine (present-day Israel). Their ancestors had probably in turn moved there as part of the Zionist movement in the latter half of the 19th century.

Aviva’s family came to Australia from a ‘shtetl’, a typically Eastern European town with a significant (if not majority) Jewish population, near Odessa. Like many escaping the final years of the failing Tsarist regime and the subsequent period of revolution, civil war and Bolshevik rule, they were humanitarian and economic refugees.

Aviva’s mother, Fanya, escaped to Palestine from the Russian revolution. There she married Samuel Cohen before he emigrated to Perth soon after to become a wool trader. Fanya joined him some years after. She was an incredibly intelligent woman; in Russia, she had been studying medicine, despite the strict limitations upon accessibility of formal education for both for women and especially for Jews, amongst others. She had, however, to forfeit her education to escape the pogroms (anti-Semitic riots rife in the Russian Empire and Soviet Union), in which half of her family were murdered.

Aviva was born in Perth and was the elder of Fanya and Samuel’s two children. She was pushed very hard with her education by her mother, earning prizes in modern and classical languages and graduating with a degree in Physics at 19.

Samuel was tragically killed in a truck accident in the course of his work, which meant that Fanya had to clean houses to support herself and her children. Alec and Aviva met in Perth as youths, but she moved to Sydney in her late teens.

Alec did a physics degree in Perth and became a telecommunications engineer for the Postmaster General there, and then for the ABC in Sydney. He was also Special Projects Engineer for Telecommunications at the Sydney Opera House, New Parliament House in Canberra, and the new Parliament House in Papua New Guinea following their independence from Australia, which required systems for simultaneous translation and broadcast in 70 different languages.

Aviva taught science at Ascham School in Edgecliff and worked among other positions as a radiographer and legal secretary; she was also a computer programmer, working in those early days at the dawn of the industry with paper cards. She then pursued a postgraduate degree in environmental science at the University of Sydney and worked in the Department of Environment.

Alec and Aviva attended the Bayreuth Festspiele twice; the first time was while living in London in 1955. There wasn’t much in the way of lighting and stage props, let alone air conditioning, but the sound was, they described, nonetheless incredible.

They returned again in 1970, to the same extraordinary artistry, and improved facilities. As with all Wagner enthusiasts, they knew all the leitmotifs and stories and were completely immersed in the music. Aviva made all of her own dresses to wear to the opera, being a talented seamstress who also made wedding dresses for both of her daughters.

Towards the end of Alec’s life, however, he turned away from Wagner for a number of reasons. Wagner’s egotism, strong associations with the composer promoted by the National Socialists, and the fact that Winifred Wagner and her family had been heavily and unapologetically engaging in Extremist Right Wing politics up until and beyond her death in 1982, somewhat doused the flame of love for Alec. Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler became his constant companions until his death.

Aviva herself was a gifted amateur pianist, who played and practised regularly until she was no longer physically able. Alec had begun the cello when he was 26, but gave up quickly after realising that it was unlikely he would achieve his goal

of playing Bach’s six suites. Their two daughters inherited their passion and for music; their younger daughter Natalia Ricci is a concert pianist and Lecturer in Piano at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and her daughter, Ariana, is studying classical voice and violin there as a Bachelor student.

Their grandson Joseph, with whom Alec used to sit whenever he could while Joseph practised cello, is an avid fan of Wagner and his contemporaries. He was very tempted to prioritise his trombone studies after Alec played him music from Lohengrin, but who wouldn’t be! The seed planted by his grandparents was strongly nurtured by Dr. David Larkin at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where Joseph completed his Bachelor of Music.

Joseph now lives with his wife, soprano Jessica Harper, in Dresden around the corner from Wagner’s former residence in his days as a young Kapellmeister. They are very grateful for the support she has twice received from the Wagner Society in NSW. Although no trombones have returned to their household, to the presumable delight of their neighbours, they are relocating in September for postgraduate study at the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp - close enough in the spirit of Lohengrin to a meadow by the Schelde!

Jessica Harper

Wagner Quarterly 162, September 2021