The Spiritual Journey of Hermann Cohen


Hermann Cohen (1821-18   ) at age 15
"Le Mélancolique Puzzi"
 (photo credit: Carmelite archives, France)


        The 1830's are especially rich years in the Liszt literature. It was during this period that Hermann Cohen burst into Liszt’s intimate life. Almost as suddenly he seemed to drop off the edge of the musical world and out of Liszt’s life. By 1841, Liszt would write to his mistress, Marie d’Agoult: "J’espère ne plus entendre parler de lui." ("I hope never to hear him spoken of again.") . The melancholic "Puzzi," as he was nicknamed,  thus became a footnote in the Liszt literature. Yet there is more to the story.

        Recent documentation shines new light on how this most beloved, German-born Jewish virtuoso and protégé of Liszt fell out of favor with the Master and subsequently became a Carmelite monk. We learn how alienation turned to eventual reconciliation and what Puzzi did with his musical talent. The reader will discover Hermann’s later life, a life so extraordinary that initial steps are already under way that may lead to his eventual canonization as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

       As a member of the American Liszt Society, this writer had more than a passing interest in Hermann. For many years I have been organist at a Carmelite church and often asked myself if Puzzi might not be of greater interest than a passing footnote or two in the Liszt literature. One day, however, this writer was approached while at the organ over a year ago by a young woman. She asked if I was familiar with the hymn, Lauda Sion. Steeped in Gregorian chant from my youth, I assumed she meant the famous Latin chant that Paul Hindemith had woven so marvelously into the final pages of Mathis der Maler. Instead, she placed before me a photocopy of a choral work by Hermann Cohen. Taken aback, I inquired where she had found this music. She replied that when studying with the Sacramentine nuns, a cloistered order, she had sung it many times.

         A hasty visit to the nearby convent was rewarded when a good Sister produced a worn, nineteenth century French volume containing two sets of over fifty compositions by "HERMANN, en réligion, R.P. Augustin Marie du Très Saint-Sacrement, Carme Dechausé." I learned that when these nuns were expelled from France at the turn of the century along with other religious orders, because of the anti-clerical laws of the day, they brought with them the music they had sung for years in France. They have maintained this musical tradition to this day.

        Resolved to pursue the subject, I combed the limited resources available to a student of Liszt. For years, the only biography of Hermann in English has been that of the Abbé Sylvain. This work from 1880, translated in English in 1925 and out of print, is a valuable resource for one reason: although the work is dated, its author had in hand the "Confessions" of Father Hermann that were written "under obedience" for his superiors when he entered the novitiate (1850). Sylvain quotes this document liberally, and happily, for the historian, for it has since been lost.

        This writer, however, through inquiries with the Discalced Carmelites in England and France, has learned of unpublished material that should be of interest to Liszt scholars. Besides the compositions of Hermann found at the convent already mentioned, there are other manuscripts extant, both in England and in France. Some of these will be discussed in this paper.

        It was of great interest  to learn that the great- grand nephew of Hermann died only in 1993.   This maternal grandson of Hermann’s beloved nephew, George, was a Benedictine monk, a musician and a scholar, Dom Jean-Marie Beaurin (1901-1993). In his possession were over 100 letters from Hermann, many of which may be of interest to Liszt scholars. Since his death, his personal archives have been entrusted to the French Carmelites. In 1982, Dom Beaurin published a biography of Hermann, entitled Flèche de Feu. Unfortunately, this work is already out of print. I am grateful to the Carmelites in France for the loan of this valuable resource and other materials not available in this country. I am equally thankful to the English Carmelites for the use of their manuscripts and publications. An English translation of Dom Beaurin’s work is possible in the future, as well as a re-publication of the original French work. There is a regular publication, Lettre aux Amis du Père Hermann, published by the French Carmelites.

Early years

        Hermann was born in Hamburg on November 10, 1821 to David Abraham Cohen, a wealthy banker, and Rosalie Benjamin. Hamburg was a crossroads of cultures and the Cohen family was of a liberal and secular Jewish persuasion. However, they had strong emotional ties to Judaism that were to remain with Hermann throughout his life. Hermann differed somewhat from the rest of his family in that he was deeply moved while attending Jewish liturgies. "When I saw the Rabbi mount the steps of the sanctuary,  draw aside the curtain, and open a door, I was filled with awe and expectation.....  all through the ceremony I was full of anxiety."
He began to study piano at the age of four and a half and soon outstripped his older brother, Albert. "Like another Jacob, I snatched the birthright of my brother.  It was I who always won the prizes.  Through my fault my brother must have suffered very much.."

        By age six he could play popular opera tunes of the day and began to improvise. At school he suffered discrimination and abuse from the Protestant boys; at home, he was spoiled and pampered by his mother. In Hermann's own description of himself  he was  "the tyrant of the family..."  Everyone in the house had to kow-tow to his whims:  "Be silent. Hermann is sleeping.  Hermann is studying .  Herman is composing."
             He later confessed that by the age of nine he had become quite vain and greedy and had no moral character. He  wrote of the early nefarious influences in his life as a pampered self-indugent child, he wrote:   "Latin, Greek, and Hebrew were forgotten, but no the other hand, I learned when 12 years old many things, the knowledge of which was well-nigh fatal to my soul."
          By the age of eleven his piano teacher began calling Hermann a genius. His father, however, who by 1830 was having financial problems, would not hear of Hermann pursuing a musical career. Despite his father’s objections, Hermann managed to perform in two concerts which were arranged by his teacher. The first of these took place in nearby Altona. It was followed by a very successful performance in Frankfurt before a sophisticated audience.

        Meanwhile Hermann had become vain and arrogant. He frankly admits how badly he behaved at home. At this early age he soon acquired a taste for gambling, a habit learned from his teacher, which would plague him for years. He also nearly ruined his career at this time by almost severing his forefinger while trying to steal jam from a glass jar in the pantry.

        His mother now resolved that Hermann should go to Paris to study with the best teachers available. Here Liszt’s father, Adam, comes to mind and Hermann’s move to Paris reminds the reader of a similar move by the young Franz. Rosalie Cohen took her son to the Grand Dukes of both Mecklenburg-Strelitz and Schwerin. Armed with glowing recommendations from both, she prepared to set out for Paris. Disrespectful and impudent as he was, Hermann managed to compose a cantata for his mother’s birthday before their departure. His teacher lavished praise on the work and judged it to be worthy of publication.

Paris and Liszt

        On July 5, 1834 Hermann, aged twelve, arrived in Paris with his mother. In his own words, he had already learned things that were "well-nigh fatal to my soul.". As with Liszt’s father, Adam, a few years previously, Madame Cohen found that her son, not being French, was ineligible for study at the Paris Conservatory1

        1834 was to be a critical year for Liszt as well as for Hermann. Liszt, at this time, was only twenty-two and had already suffered his first broken heart over the  Caroline Saint-Cricq romance and a subsequent moral and vocational crisis.  Now he was on the threshhold of his affair with the Countess Marie d'Agoult. 1844 also saw the beginning of a friendship with George Sand as well as the Abbé Lamennais, the "Breton saint."  These two powerful firgures would exercise an important influence on Hermann as well.Franz Liszt introduced him to George Sand when he was 13.  She pampered him to death:
        "People were jealous of me and considered me exceptionally fortunate in being able to approach this extraordinary person.  Some even went to the length of pretending that I resembled her: like her I had beautiful hair falling on my shoulders. Soon my name was coupled with hers....When she composed her novels I prepared her cigarettes, and from time to time she would make me sit down at the piano and I played while she continued writing"  He noted that he had no idea about the content of what she was writing (her  novel Lélia).  When people asked him if he was the famous "Puzzi" that Sand spoke and wrote about,  Herman wrote: "It was a passport which gave me entrance into all the salons of Europe."
        Sylvain tells us that the nickname Liszt had given Hermann (Puzzi) comes from the Geman "putzig " (mignon, in French) meaning "little darling."  Sand thought it charming and spread the word in her circles and writings. He became know as the "Mélancholique Puzzi.'
        The Abbé Lamennais would in fact offer the young Jewish boy an autographed copy of Paroles d'un croyant, with the inscription: "Souvenirs offerts à mon cher petit Puzzi." Lamennais blessed him and inscribed for him a copy of his famous Paroles d"un croyant for which the Abbé was later excommunicated by Pope Gregory XVI.  "I went with Liszt to see him," Hermann wrote. "He took me on his knee and put his hand on my head to bless me."

         1834 was also a year of riots in the streets.  Revoltuions was in the air.


Franz Liszt in 1839.
 Painting by Henri Lehmann, copied by Viktor Madarasz in 1860
 (photo credit: Liszt Ferenc Memorial Museum, Budapest)

        When Hermann was presented to the "fiery Liszt," Franz was reluctant to take him on as a pupil. Yet how could he not relate to the young protégé’s situation, so like his own-- foreign-born and denied admission to the Paris Conservatory? Hearing Hermann play was enough for Liszt to accept him as a pupil and it was not long before Hermann became his favorite. As Czerny had once nicknamed Liszt, "Putzig" (cute little fellow), Liszt would label his own pupil with a less Germanic form. "Puzzi" soon became well-known in Paris circles. Witness Sand’s enraptured description of the thirteen year old Hermann standing by Liszt as he played:

    "pale, visibly moved, still as a statue and yet trembling like a flower about to drop its petals.... has heaven ever fashioned a more beautiful soul, a subtler mind, a more interesting face than that of our Hermann?" 1

        Not many years later this same George Sand (photo) would turn from Hermann in disgust and refuse to speak with him. Hermann soon became the chouchou of the Paris salons. He was spoiled and doted on to the point that he became "the family tyrant" at home. Mother, brothers and sister all catered to his every whim. At the same time, Liszt saw the real talent that lay in Hermann, as well as his good looks. Two weeks after Hermann’s fourteenth birthday Liszt could write of

    "Hermann’s pale and melancholy appearance, his beautiful dark hair, and frail physique.... The dear boy gave further proof of that precocious understanding and profound feeling for art which already set him apart from the ordinary run of pianists and lead me to predict a brilliant, fruitful future for him."2

Swiss adventures

        In June of 1835 Liszt left for Geneva with his lover, Marie d’Agoult. There he began teaching at the Conservatory. Hermann was devastated at the sudden departure of his master. He pined away in Paris, seeking solace at the feet of George Sand. After persistent begging, he was allowed to follow Liszt to Switzerland. He set out with his mother and brother for Geneva and arrived on August 14. Marie has left a bitter account of her feelings at the intrusion of this boy into their private lives. Her own daughter left behind in Paris, she had to watch Liszt pamper a child she did not even know. Now pregnant, she found Hermann ever present. She was filled with bitterness ("beaucoup d’amertume") and bided her time. Hermann went everywhere with Liszt incurring the jealous of Maire d'Agoult.  He often turned papges  for Liszt. And when he was 14 Liszt arranged for Hermann to have a public concert.  The authorsnotes that Hermann was in the habit of taking a few years off his age when promoting hismself so that he could maintain the reputation as a child prodigy.

One eyewitness wrote:

"Then a little fellow of thirteen arrived in search of him (Liszt), the pupil of whom he is so fond. How kindly and fatherly he is toward  this child; it is touching to see how he behaves with him. The child idolizes him, hardly taking his eyes off him." 3

        It is certain that Liszt felt responsible not only for Hermann’s musical formation, but also for his character development. Dom Beaurin and others question Liszt’s ability to be much of a role model at this time in his life. Yet the nobility of his person, his magnanimity of spirit, and the spiritual dimension of his life were not lost on Hermann in spite of the compromised moral situation in which Liszt presently found himself. As for his musical formation, Hermann grew under Liszt’s watchful eye. On October 1, 1835 Hermann participated in a concert sponsored by the Princess Belgiojoso in Geneva. Together with Pierre Wolff, Francesco Bonoldi, and Liszt, Hermann played in a four-piano Brilliant Potpourri on folk airs by Czerny. That same month Liszt entrusted Hermann with ten students of the recently founded Geneva Conservatory of Music. At age thirteen Hermann’s musical career appeared incredibly promising.

        On February 22, 1836 and again on April 6 Hermann participated in concerts in Geneva with Liszt and others. He was also spending money as fast as he made it. To heighten Marie’s displeasure, Hermann tagged along with the couple on side trips to Veyrier in the mountains during June and to a chalet hideaway at Monnetier during July.

        Liszt took Hermann along on his famous romp through Switzerland with his mistress Marie d'Agoult,  Sand and others.  Hermann wrote that "Circumstances led me into the interior of a family unsanctified by the marriage ties."  At the same time, however,  Herman was touched when Liszt gave him a bible.
        This well-documented excusrion to Chamonix, though well-known in the literature, deserves mention in so far as Hermann is concerned. Madame Sand and her entourage arrived in Geneva in September and Hermann found himself about to undertake a trip he would never forget, some aspects of which he probably would rather have forgotten. The fourteen-year-old fit right in with this androgynous band of bohemians smoking drug-laced cigars. "They encouraged 'Puzzi' Cohen and Solange  (Sand's daughter) to cross-dress, shocking the chambermaid profoundly.  Soon the entire hotel was aware that the occupants of room number 13 were quite extraordinary." Hermann wore his hair long à la Liszt (see photo) to the extent that the poor innkeeper called him "young lady." With all the long hair on the men and Madame Sand dressed as a man, the locals were thrown into disarray. Given Madame Sand’s all too inclusive erotic preferences and the lifestyle of her coterie of friends, one might surmise that Hermann’s Swiss adventure provided him with a sex education second to none.

        There was one fleeting yet profound moment for these frolicking flower children that hurled them face to face with the transcendental. Even the agnostic Sand was moved. Liszt mounted the grand organ of St. Nicholas Cathedral in Fribourg and improvised on the Dies Irae from the "Requiem" of  Mozart. Hermann was also caught up in a religious experience with the other flower children traveling with Liszt.  Hermann was struck to the quick. He later wrote,
"Liszt played the great organ, that colossal harp of David, all of whose majestic notes convey some vague idea of your greatness, O my God. ... You were there at the door of my heart, and I did not open to You."

         If Liszt could set a worldly example, he could also unleash forces that thrust one into the presence of the Almighty.

Fall from Grace 1837-1846

        When Liszt returned to Paris to take on the formidable Thalberg in the pianists’ duel of the century, Hermann followed his master. He found in the sponsor of this contest, the Princess Belgiojoso, a warm friend and patroness. As increasingly bizarre as she became in later life, at this moment she was a positive support for the troubled youth and exercised a maternal care and good sense that was wanting in his own mother. Gambling had become a curse, as he later confessed, "a passion that swallowed up the best years of my youth.... which several times nearly drove me to suicide."

        In her letters to Liszt during his years of travel, Princess Belgiojoso expressed her increasing concern over what was happening to Hermann. She had taken him under her patronage and allowed him to manage some of her concerts and personal affairs. Dom Beaurin speaks of her "good heart" and pity for the adolescent whom she saw a "victim of his own talent, of his mother’s weakness, of the absence of a father who might have taught and restrained him, and a victim of the flattery he had wallowed in since childhood."

        Meanwhile Hermann seemed unaware of the growing resentment of Marie d’Agoult over his foppish and profligate ways. When he sought relief from his gambling debts from her Franz, this "soul with hair," as Marie was sometimes called, saw the boy as a threat to her two children. Her letters to Liszt during this period are full of complaints and seek to poison Liszt against his protege. In May of 1838 we find Princess Belgiojoso having to defend Hermann to Liszt: "He’s still faithful to you and I think all he asks is to hear from you." She continues that Hermann is "finding his way" and is giving lessons to young ladies who prefer him to the older, bearded teachers.

        When Hermann found that he had spent more than he had earned and could not pay the tailor bills for his fancy clothes, the Princess tried to mount a concert for him to help him regain some financial stability. The recital was a total failure. A dissipated life of late nights of gambling and sleeping all day without serious practice had hardly prepared him for the demands of a concert. Crestfallen at his failure, Hermann fled to Hamburg to seek financial aide from his father. By now the poor man had suffered his own business losses as well as the abandonment by his wife and children, and thus he had little sympathy to spare for his prodigal son. Hermann still had an untarnished reputation in Germany, however, and was able to mount a few concerts with the help of the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg.

        Back in France, Hermann befriended a popular Italian singer named Mario and became his accompanist. No longer center stage, Hermann traveled to London with the soloist and began to hone his own skills. While in England, he was able to give a brilliant concert. (His piano is preserved by the English Carmelites in Kensington). His confidence restored, Hermann sought out Liszt in Rome in June of 1839. As usual, the master received him warmly. A sonnet written by Saint-Beuve at this time and dedicated to Liszt describes the seventeen-year-old and his teacher at the Villa Adriana outside Rome.

"Near us, your Hermann, so obviously proud of you,
Puzzi of former days, happy and excited." 5

        In wasn’t long before Herman was out of money again. Back in London, he met the Princess Belgiojoso who was by now becoming somewhat exasperated at his antics. There had been a falling out. "He is really still a child," she wrote Liszt in August, 1839. She had been deeply hurt by him and things would never be the same. She told Liszt that at least her conscience was clear as far as Hermann was concerned. Liszt, too, was having a hard time saying anything good about him. By October, the Princess writes Liszt that only he can provide the "moral protection and example" the boy needs. She feels sorry for him because he "does not know how to maintain friendships."6

        Hermann had made enough money on a visit to London to write an operatic work that he tried in vain to stage in Verona. Meanwhile Marie d’Agoult continued her epistolary onslaughts against Hermann. On November 30, 1839, she wrote Liszt about his protege’s involvement with a doctor’s wife. Her parents managed to break it up. On December 6, she writes Liszt that Hermann, although respectful to her and anxious to please, "is the vainest person I know. He doesn’t know how to behave, has no real ability and demeans himself. I think when you return you should give him the brush-off. It’s high time you cut adrift and gave him up as a bad job." 7

        Despite these attacks, Liszt welcomed Puzzi in Prague in March, 1840. Marie was outraged that Liszt would dare to receive with honor the fellow she had just thrown out the door. Liszt, meanwhile, was heeding the admonitions of Princess Belgiojoso to be a role model and support to Hermann. Toward the end of March we find Liszt crossing the Rhine at Mainz to bail him out of some financial trouble, and shortly thereafter giving Hermann the task of arranging his concerts for him.

        Marie continued to barrage Liszt with letters. Hermann is "depraved" (May 17). Meanwhile Hermann traveled with Liszt to Baden and on to Hamburg where he was reunited with his older brother, Louis Cohen. Again in July 1840 Marie writes to the artist Lehmann that Hermann can’t even do a decent job arranging concerts for Liszt and that, "He continues to play the roulette wheel and lost 1000 francs in a fortnight." She avows that he has been fired and that she will send Liszt a replacement. Yet Hermann remained with Liszt until the end of 1840 at which time he departed for Venice where, according to Liszt, he took the city by storm. Liszt begs Marie that when she writes to Miri, Hermann’s manager, she shouldn’t say nasty things about him, even if it they are true.

        Meanwhile, Friedriich Wieck, father of Clara Schumann, as Alan Walker noted in his most recent book on Liszt, began to slander  both Liszt and Hermann in the Leipzig papers.  He was outraged at Liszt for supporting Robert Schumann in his lawsuit against Wieck "to show cause why his twenty- year - old daughter Clara should not marry Schumann."  Liszt "shrugged off the episode," writes Walker. But Hermann didn't,  He "took Wieck to court to won his case."  (Walker, 2005)

        But by this time, even Liszt has noticed a decline in Hermann’s abilities, adding this back-handed compliment: "I’m not surprised at Hermann’s success. He’s just the kind of pianist they need in Italy." So much for Liszt’s opinion of Italian musical taste in piano music. Once more the estranged lover begs Liszt to get rid of Puzzi who is a threat to the financial wellbeing of her and her children. "Shake the caterpillars out of the tree that are devouring the leaves." (January 18, 1841) Dom Beaurin notes that the "leaves" here are the funds Liszt is supposed to send for the support of his children. She sees him as a real threat to her wellbeing.

        1841 was the year in which Hermann’s world collapsed. In a long letter written to his friend, Alphonse-Marie Ratisbonne, Hermann describes what eventually separated him from Liszt. In the letter, now lost, he speaks of "une trame des plus infernalement ourdie" (a plot hatched in hell). Hermann was accused of profiting from some of the funds from Liszt’s concerts, a swindle of 1500 francs from a Dresden concert and nearly as much from a second concert. Hermann showed the accounts to his mother and tried, without success, to get her to intercede with Liszt. A second accusation was made against Hermann of cheating Liszt. Yet he poses some provocative questions. Why would Hermann, after his conversion, lie about this one incident? In his Confessions, written under obedience for his religious superiors, he had owned up to an array of much greater faults in his past life in great detail. In his letter to his loyal friend, Father Ratisbonne, he had described his past sins in complete humility and sincerity. Given the constant attacks of Marie against Hermann in her letters and her efforts to get rid of him, Dom Beaurin asks whether she might not have been behind this "most hellish plot."

        It matters not whether Hermann was a competent accountant. Nor can it be proven that he did swindle Liszt. The fact is Liszt believed it happened. Later when Marie accused Hermann of threatening to publish some letters that would compromise him, Liszt again believed her. "I’ll bring that miserable wretch to justice," he wrote. Liszt later avowed, however, that he wept silently as he gave a concert because he had just received this letter from Marie and it wounded him deeply.

        At nineteen Hermann now found his world in shambles. He entered what spiritual writers have called the "dark night of the soul." All attempts at reconciliation with Liszt had failed. The following years, 1842-1846 were marked by travels with his mother and sister, concerts in Venice, Paris, London, and throughout Germany. This was also a period of compositions for piano, some of which include:

- Various fantasies on opera themes, including Reminiscences of I Lombardi of Verdi published in Il Messaggiero Musicale, No. 11.

- Fleurs d’Hiver, dances for piano;

- Twelve Virtuoso Pieces, published by Ricordi;

- Nuit Vénitienne, a nocturne;

- Schlummerlied (1841), a lullaby;

- Les Bords de l'Elbe , a 5-page work for piano. A facsimile of the hand- written manuscript, dedicated to the Duchesse de Rauzan, his future god- mother, was sent to this writer by the English Carmelites.

Conversion and Vocation - 1847

        By October, 1846, Hermann was living in Paris with a painter and artist friend, Adalbert de Beaumont. The following year, 1847, was a turning point in both Liszts and Hermann’s life. In February, Liszt would meet the Princess Carolyne von Sayn- Wittgenstein and his life would never be the same. In the spring of the same year Hermann, too, fell in love; this time with a well-known circus rider named Celeste Mogadar. Her diary, as quoted by Dom Beaurin, describes their shared love of music and how Hermann’s improvisations at the piano melted her heart. Yet it would all come to a sudden end. To her chagrin she received a "Dear Celeste" letter telling her that his life was no longer his own, that he had placed his trust in the God of consolation. The letter was so poignant and noble that she tried to see him once more. Hermann replied that he could not see her. The die was cast.

        The subsequent events of Hermann’s life are so incredible and the direction he took so radical and abrupt that a cynic, except for the incontrovertible evidence, would find the following hard to believe. Yet what Hermann did with his life is beyond dispute and his unswerving adherence to this extraordinary option until the day he died leaves no doubt as to his sincerity. It is known that Hermann had been seen visiting several churches in Paris. In fact, Celeste had observed him for two hours in the Madeleine. He was disgusted with his life and trying to come to grips with the void within.

        In May, 1847, Prince Moscowa asked Hermann to substitute as choral director for a service at the church of S. Valère (now demolished). At the close of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, (le Salut), when the priest raised the monstrance in blessing Hermann experienced a deep motion, sweet and powerful. Overwhelmed, he felt like the Prodigal Son, totally unworthy and in need to return home. Liszt had once given him a bible when they were in Geneva. In it the Master had inscribed, "Blessed are the pure of heart." Hermann knew he did not qualify.

        The same phenomenon occurred the following week and, even when he was off to Germany for a concert at Ems, Hermann burst into a flood of tears as he attended services in a little country church. Hermann had never known any priest except the Abbé Lamennais and was apprehensive about approaching one. A series of positive experiences, however, eventually led him to Father Theodore Ratisbonne, also a Jew, who would become his confidant and confessor.

        At his baptism on August 28, 1847, Hermann experienced what he called an "apparition" of Christ, Mary, and the saints in a "brilliant light" and an "ecstasy of love."  By November of that year he had already resolved to become a priest. Before he could undertake this whirlwind venture, however, it was necessary to wipe out the considerable gambling debts he had acquired. It took him two years of teaching at the Collège Stanislas and private lessons with young ladies who were not at all happy at his turn from the world. During this time he lived in modest quarters and spent hours in prayer with young men who shared his enthusiasm. Once during this period he chanced to meet George Sand who formerly had lavished such affection on him. She turned away in disgust, "Get lost! You’re nothing but a vile monk."

        By 1848, he managed to pay off his debts. One final concert at the Saint Cecilia Hall bade his adieu to the world and helped square his accounts. He had had to practice from morning to night to prepare for it. According to one eyewitness, the concert was and "immense success" and the hall filled with "thunderous applause." Hermann wrote that in earlier days he would have been in the streets with a gun during the Revolution of 1848. Instead he was at his favorite devotion, spending the night in adoration before the exposed Blessed Sacrament. This popular devotion was in great part pioneered by Hermann. Today visitors to the Basilica du Sacré Coeur in Paris will note that the Sacrament is continually exposed. Liszt himself wrote to Hermann’s first biographer, Abbé Sylvain, in 1882, that Hermann’s was a "life of burning and ecstatic perpetual adoration of the Bread of Angels."

        In 1849 Hermann collaborated with a gifted poet, Soeur Marie-Pauline du Fougerais, in his first attempt to write religious music. It was a collection of 32 canticles for equal voices entitled Gloire à Marie. The proceeds went entirely to help a family that had come to financial ruin. Was Hermann not already following the example of Liszt who had been so generous to flood victims and so many other causes?

       When considering the direction in which Hermann was heading it should be stated forthrightly that Hermann considered himself a Jew till the day he died. It can be said in fact that as he progressed in his religious life he became more and more aware of his religious heritage. His subsequent writings and sermons are filled with references to himself as a "child of Israel, a wandering Jew, a child of the Prophets. Juif encore (still a Jew)." And when he came to enter a religious order he chose the one that traced its origins to Mt. Carmel and the prophet Elijah, an order Hermann described as "born among the Jews." A study of his relationship with his Jewish family, some of whom opted to follow him in his new-found faith, as well as with others of his heritage is beyond the scope of this paper, but is of ecumenical interest. Hermann first approached the Benedictines of Solesmes who were known for their restoration and execution of Gregorian chant. Next, he turned to Lacordaire who advised Hermann to enter a community more monastic than the Dominicans. Thus it was that Hermann turned to the most austere branch of the Carmelite Order, the Discalced, (or Barefoot), Carmelites who followed the way of the great Spanish mystics, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila.

       His mother, his sister, Henriette, and brother, Louis, saw him off at the Gare d’Orléans on July 16. Mother clipped a lock of his hair and refused to believe that this move on his part was more than temporary insanity. When Hermann presented himself at the Carmelite convent in Agen he brought a great deal of emotional baggage with him. Here was a young man who only a short while ago had been a dandy and dilettante. He had bad habits to overcome: a malicious wit, a tendency to backbite and gossip. He was addicted to gambling, he smoked, he took snuff, he loved coffee. What he faced was bare feet in the winter, rising in the middle of the night for prayer, total abstinence from meat, fasting throughout the year, sleeping on a board without a mattress, long periods of silence in a small cell, and no keyboard during his novitiate. So much for the "chouchou de Paris."

     Other obstacles faced Hermann. He had to travel to Rome to get a special dispensation to be ordained since he had only been baptized a short while. Like Liszt, his formal education had ended at an early age, in his case, ten. Now he faced studies of philosophy and theology. His mother began to realize he was serious and descended on the monastery in July of 1850 to try to dissuade her son from his monastic life. She found his Lisztian locks had given way to the shaven head of the tonsure. The meeting was tender and emotional, but Madame Cohen did not prevail. On October 7, 1850, Hermann was professed and took the name Père Augustin-Marie du Très Saint Sacrement. On April 19, 1851, he was ordained a priest at the age of twenty-nine, less than four years after his baptism - a truly unusual event in church policy. The Carmelites obviously knew they had someone special in Hermann.

     It is not within the scope of this paper to discuss the years of Hermann’s ministry in great detail. There is significant documentation to assert without reservation that, once he put his hand to the plow, he never looked back. He became a renowned preacher in demand in many parts of Europe, speaking before thousands in Geneva, Bordeaux, Lyon, and in Paris before huge crowds in churches such as S. Sulpice and Ste. Clotilde. Even the poet, Charles Beaudelaire, found his discourse "remarquable et très curieux." Hermann also founded a number of religious houses for the Carmelites, including a "Holy Desert" in the Pyrenees where a hermit could live in total isolation and obscurity.

    Here he spent some of his happiest hours near the end of his life, escaping the fame that had come to him in his ministry. At the invitation of Cardinal Wiseman and with blessing of Pope Pius IX, Hermann was asked to restore the Carmelite Order to England where it had been banished ever since the Reformation. This he did with elan. In 1864, the London Times described the ministry of this brave "papist" priest as he mounted the scaffold at Newgate to minister to six Catholic sailors about to be hanged before a huge, jeering crowd. The British public had not witnessed such a sight since the

Father Hermann, as a Discalced Carmelite



        Hermann’s musical compositions during the period of his religious life include:

Gloire à Marie, (1849), a collection of 32 canticles;

Amour à Jésus-Christ (1851) 32 canticles and 8 Latin motets;

Messa à Tre Voci , (1852), later arranged for chorus and soloists in 1856. This 1856 version, a copy of which was sent to the writer by the English Carmelites, bears Hermann’s hand-written inscription:

Al suo Maestro insignun infirmo scolare

All’egregio Signor
Abbate Liszt
il suo affezzionissimo Fra Agostino-Marie  9

Fleurs du Carmel , (1869), 19 canticles (one is included in this article) and 6 Latin Motets;

Thabor , (1870), 20 canticles and 1 Latin motet

        That Hermann’s music was extremely popular during his lifetime and after is clear. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1908, however, is harsh in its judgment and describes it as "pious but somewhat shallow." Other critics were more generous and even glowing during his lifetime. Dom Beaurin quotes some musicologists of our own day who find his work creative and forward-looking. Fr. Benoit-Marie de l’Eucharistie has an in-depth evaluation of Hermann’s music.10  He writes that "a certain sentimentalism surprises us, a saccharine aspect can either amuse or annoy us." At best, this writer finds some of his religious works a bit dated and too idiosyncratic for today’s liturgy; most, however, are well-written and quite beautiful. One can understand their enduring popularity.

        Reconciliation with Liszt.

        Of interest to Liszt students, and generally missing from the literature, is the story of the renewed and deep friendship that occurred after the affair of the missing French francs. While Marie d’Agoult had been fuming over the bothersome Hermann, she also tried to enlist Liszt’s mother, Anna, in her cause. In a January 1840 letter to Liszt, Marie demonstrated outright prejudice against the boy, quoting approvingly the comment of Anna, "Ein Jud bleibt immer ein Jud"  (Once a Jew, always a Jew.) For his part, Liszt was incapable of this kind of prejudice. The elderly Anna had brought her way of thinking from Eastern Europe. What was Marie’s excuse?

           Given his generous and loving nature, Liszt could not stay angry for long. By October 30, 1852 we find him replying to a letter from Hermann who had invited him to come visit the Carmelite convent in France. Writing from Weimar, Liszt assured him he would try to come. He tells Hermann of the "sincere and tender attachment I have always had for you." He sends Hermann a copy of an Ave Verum for men’s voices. He then goes on to speak at length about the religious music of Berlioz and Raimondi. 11

        On January 19, 1855, Liszt’s daughter, Blandine, wrote a long letter to her father. In it she describes a visit with Marie who had spoken about Hermann and the success of his ministry. But as for Grandmother Anna, "she’s still stuck in the past" as far as Hermann is concerned. She still could say nothing good about Jews.

        On March 22, 1857, Liszt wrote again to Hermann inviting him to visit him at Weimar. He noted at the end of the letter that he was writing from a sick bed -- the same illness, he said, that had plagued him the previous October in Zurich while he was visiting Wagner. (According to Adrian Williams, a "skin eruption"). He also reassured Hermann that he would have no problem in Weimar if he wore his Carmelite habit. He also promised to send him some music for his specific needs, although it would be hard to compose simple things without writing the "hackneyed, vulgar and sentimental stuff that is proliferating at the moment." He also assured Hermann that his home had been blessed by the local priest with whom he was on good terms. Finally, Liszt gave Hermann a long explanation of his association with the Franciscans, (he had been named a "confrater"), and hoped to write more music "permeated with the Catholic spirit."

        The month of June 1862 found both Hermann and Liszt in Rome. It was their first meeting in years. The occasion was a large gathering called by Pius IX for the canonization of a number of Japanese martyrs. The two friends, who were by this time both in religious life, met several times. Liszt received communion from Hermann’s hands. They dined frequently and played the piano together at the convent of the Vittoria. Dom Beaurin notes that the old convent piano was no Pleyal. Louis Veuillot who witnessed all this, as did others, writes of a moving moment in the Colosseum. There, Hermann and Liszt, side by side, walked in a solemn Way of theCross ceremony. Both bore heavy burdens in their hearts as they prayed together.

Franz Liszt on his seventieth birthday
 (photo by Langdorf

   On July 8, Liszt wrote to Blandine about his visits with Hermann over the past three weeks. He heard him preach at the church of Saint-Louis des Français and was impressed by his eloquence. His entrance into the religious life has enriched his intelligence, his heart, and his manners," Liszt writes, hoping that when Hermann appears in Paris, Anna won’t show him the door. He asks Blandine to intervene on his behalf and prays that his mother will receive Hermann. He even adds, for Anna’s sake, that Lacordaire had once told Hermann that one could tell the Carmelite habit had been designed by a woman, Teresa of Avila, because it was so graceful. It seems that Liszt , too, was able to work miracles, for on July 27 Blandine announced to her father that "Grandmother was delighted with your letter. She’s waiting for Father Hermann and will give him a cordial reception, because he has changed his ways."


Church of Saint Louis des Français in Rome


        Liszt’s passion for Marie d’Agoult had died, but his friendship with Hermann had grown deep over the years.   In 1870, the Franco-Prussian War erupted and Hermann was torn in two. Devoted to France, his adopted home, he saw his own nephew in the French army, whereas a large part of his family lived in Germany. Furthermore the new French government was vehemently anti-clerical. Hermann was a German, a monk, and a Jew. The madness of the time and the hot pursuit of hostile forces made him a fugitive in his beloved France. Convents Hermann had established were destroyed. By October, he was forced to flee across the border to Geneva where he ministered to exiles from both France and Germany. In November, he was told that a vast number of French prisoners were languishing in Spandau Prison a few miles outside Berlin. Although the Prussian government would not allow them a French chaplain, Hermann was given permission to take this position since he was a German by birth. When he arrived in Berlin at the end of November he wrote his sister, "Berlin will be my grave."

        He found himself chaplain to five thousand prisoners of whom five hundred were sick with typhus, dysentery and other illnesses. He had not been well for several years and witnesses tell of how tirelessly he worked, especially ministering to the sick. By January, he was suffering from a sore throat, was pale, and had quickly aged. More ominous were the sores that appeared on his hands while working at the hospital. He had been careless. Instead of using a spatula to anoint the dying he had done it with his bare hands and had contracted small pox.

        By January 13, 1871, he lay sick and within a few days became delirious. On January 19, he regained consciousness, received the sacraments devoutly, and died peacefully the following day after singing the Salve Regina with the nun who was attending to him. She later wrote a detailed account of his death. He was buried in the Carmelite church of St. Hedwig in Berlin. Because of the destruction during the bombing of World War II, he was reburied in a municipal cemetery in the former East Berlin.

        The religious life and works of Hermann as a Carmelite lay beyond the scope of this article. Yet they were marked by such heroic virtue that his cause has been formally undertaken by the Carmelites and will hopefully lead to his canonization as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. Further information can be obtained by writing the Carmelites in France and England where a project is also under way to record some of his compositions.

        Photo of Franz Liszt's grave


1. George Sand. Letter to Franz Liszt. July/August, 1835. Cf. Charles Suttoni, page 214.
2. Franz Liszt. Letter to George Sand. Nov. 23, 1835. Cf. Charles Suttoni, p. 9.
3. Diary of Mme Auguste Boissier. Cf. Adrian Williams, p. 70.
4. George Sand - Woman's Life Write Large, page 253
5. Cf. Tadgh Tierney, p. 22.
6. op. cit. p. 23.
7. op. cit. p. 24
8. Published by Lambert & Co., Portman Square, London, and by Regis Ruffet et Cie.,Paris / Brussels.
9. "To his illustrious, teacher, the venerable Signor Abbé Liszt, from his poor student, the most affectionate Fra Augustin-Marie"
10. Éditions du Carmel, No. 54. pp 21-44.
11. Not in the Liszt catalog. Perhaps an early version of S. 44 (?)


Beaurin, OSB, Dom Jean-Marie. Flèche de Feu. Éditions France-Empire. Paris, 1982.
--------- Personal archives in possession of the Carmelite order in France.

Catholic Encyclopedia. Hermann Cohen. Vol. IV. Robert Appleton Co. New York,

Dupechez, Charles F. Memoires, Souvenirs et Journaux de la Comtesse d’Agoult.
-----------Vols. I and II. Mercure de France. Paris, 1990.

Herwegh, Marcel. Au banquet des dieux: Franz Liszt , Richard Wagner et leurs amis. Paris, 1931.

Jack, Belinda. Geaorge Sand: A Woman's Life Writ Large. Alfed A. Knoff, 2000.

"Le Père Hermann." Aux Éditions du Carmel. No. 54. Venasque (France), 1989.

Lettres aux Amis du Père Hermann. Official bulletin for the cause of the canonization
-----------of Hermann Cohen. Couvent des Carmes. 34000 Montpellier, France.

Newman, Antonine, OCD. The Story of Hermann Cohen. (audio tape) The Teresian
-----------Press. The Carmelite Priory. 41 Church Street. London W84BB.

Paulhan, Claire. "Troublante Marie d’Agoult." Le Monde (book review section).
-----------September 28, 1990.

Roux, Janine. "Hermann Cohen." Dictionnaire de Spiritualité. Vol. 7. Éditions
----------Beauchesne. Paris, 1968.

Suttoni, Charles. An Artist’s Journey. University of Chicago Press. Chicago, 1989.

Sylvain, Charles. The Life of the Reverend Father Hermann, 1880.
----------translater by  Mrs. F. Raymond Baker.
P. J. Kennedy & Sons. New York, 1925.

Tierney, OCD, Tadgh. The Story of Hermann Cohen, OCD: from Franz Liszt to John of the Cross. The ----------Teresian Press. London, no date.

Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt; The Virtuoso Years: 1811-1847. Cornell University Press.
----------Ithaca (New York), 1987.

Walker, Alan.  Reflections on Liszt.    Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 2005

Williams, Adrian. Portrait of Liszt. Clarendon Press. Oxford, 1990.

Photo credits

Carmelite Archives in France

Liszt Ferenc Memorial Museum.  Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music, Budapest