The lives of the saints are replete with stories of notorious sinners who became exemplars of Catholicism. Few, though, are so unusual as that of Hermann Cohen, Jewish child prodigy of the piano and gambling addict turned champion of the Eucharist and promoter of nocturnal Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Born at Hamburg on November 10, 1821 into a rich Jewish family, Cohen was a Liszt-like prodigy. A year after beginning to play the piano he was able to improvise on popular arias, to the amazement of all. Soon he was giving regular concerts. Spoilt and revered by his mother, he became, by his own description, “the tyrant of the family”.

Cohen experienced such success that in July 1834 his mother took him to Paris, searching among the great pianists of the day for a teacher. It was to Liszt himself that she turned. Liszt was then 22, on the cusp of his scandalous relationship with Countess Marie d’Agoult, and the darling of musical Paris. He was sufficiently impressed to accept Cohen immediately. The two were soon inseparable.

Young Hermann became known as Puzzi, the name given him by Liszt in imitation of his own nickname, Putzig (“cute little fellow”). An indication of Puzzi’s enormous talent is that in 1835 he became a professor at the newly established Geneva Conservatoire on Liszt’s recommendation – though a hint of his troublesome nature can be found in the letter Liszt wrote suggesting him “for whose talent and morals [my italics] I will be answerable”.

Cohen later wrote: “I learned when 12 years old many things, the knowledge of which was well-nigh fatal to my soul.” This must, I think, be a reference to his crippling gambling addiction, the pursuit of which would lead him to the brink of ruin. On December 7, 1841, Liszt wrote to Mme d’Agoult: “It has been made clear to me that Hermann stole 1,500 francs from me at the first concert and almost as much at the second.” In February 1844, he writes again: “I shall be making very short work of that wretch.” In March 1840 Liszt had had to help Cohen out of a scrape in Prague by paying off gambling debts. Cohen made no secret of this. It is interesting, though, that in the testimony of full confession he wrote upon entering the Carmelite order in 1849, Cohen was adamant that he did not steal from Liszt.

The probable explanation is that Mme d’Agoult arranged for the theft and for it to point to Cohen, as she was jealous of his closeness to Liszt and worried that he was a financial drain.

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