He began to play the piano when he was four; by the age of 12, he had enjoyed world fame. For over a decade, he reveled in success and lived the life of a bon vivant. Nobody could have expected that at the age of 29, Hermann Cohen would convert, don a Carmelite habit and, on top of that, attain such a degree of sainthood so as to make his beatification process a reality today.
In the footsteps of St. Augustine
Although the story of Cohen may remind us of the life path of St. Brother Albert (Adam Chmielowski) — a gifted painter who gave up art in favor of God by serving the homeless — the German pianist felt a spiritual affinity above all with St. Augustine. The disreputable past of the 4th-century bishop of Hippo reminded Hermann of his own youth, which he had spent on pleasures, totally ignoring not only religion but also moral principles. So it came as no surprise that for his baptism the musician chose the liturgical feast of St. Augustine (August 28, 1847) and that in the order he adopted the name Fr. Augustine Maria of the Blessed Sacrament. The name was chosen on purpose: it commemorated St. Augustine but also honored the Virgin Mary and the Eucharist — Cohen’s two great loves. It is to them that he owed the greatest watersheds of his life and who formed the core of his spiritual life.
A brilliant artist
Hermann Cohen was born to a Jewish family on November 10, 1821, in Hamburg. His father, a successful banker, provided well for his wife and three children. He also had an important position in the synagogue — he dispensed blessings to the worshippers. Hermann, being a sensitive boy, early on began to absorb the prayerful atmosphere in the temple and willingly sang psalms at home with his siblings. His parents discovered early his extraordinary talent for music. At the age of four, Hermann began to play the piano and only two years later he knew all the popular opera tunes. He was sent to a professor to study; the professor admittedly developed the boy’s artistic talent, but had a very bad effect on his ward’s upbringing. The boy not only came to know hunting, horses and gambling, but, looking up to his maestro, also fell in love with this pleasurable and extravagant lifestyle. As a result, Cohen junior, started to bully his family by forcing his mother and siblings to pander to his whims. It would have been different, had the boy’s father not got involved in the “enlightened” form of Judaism and, making matters worse, busied himself all day long with money-making.
The last concert of the virtuoso attracted crowds. He, however, did not care much about the applause of the audience. In fact, he was greatly relieved that the period of worldly life was coming to and end
At the age of 12, Hermann forgot religion but achieved spectacular artistic success. He was no longer a child prodigy performing in German concert halls but studied with the outstanding virtuoso of those times, Franz Liszt. He took up residence in Paris, where he perfected his art and gave many concerts. When he was 15, he took the post of professor in the Higher School of Music in Geneva. World fame and the world of bohemians he entered only worsened the corruption of the young pianist. He spent the next decade and a half smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, discussing the latest philosophical trends, squandering money on gambling and engaging in numerous love affairs, for instance with the scandal-causing George Sand. Much later, Cohen admitted that he was then a capricious, egocentric and arrogant artist obsessed with pleasure and intoxicated with success. At the same time, he felt ever more lonely and void with nothing or nobody to fill the emptiness.