Antoine Bessems – 2me Messe solennelle à quatre voix
(Antwerp, 4 April 1806 – Paris, 19 October 1868)
avec acc. de grand orchestre ou d’orgue ou de piano
Antoine Bessems was initiated into music as a junior chorister in the music chapel of Our Lady’s Cathedral in Antwerp. Willem J.J. Kennis serving as Kapellmeister and Auguste Beckers as conductor of the choristers, while François Janssens taught the violin as a member of the church orchestra. In 1826 Bessems moved to the Conservatoire de Paris, where his brother Joseph (1809-1892) later studied the cello. It was not uncommon in this era for young musicians from the southern Netherlands to pursue advanced music studies in Paris. At the Paris Conservatoire Bessems attended the violin classes of the virtuoso, pedagogue and composer Pierre Baillot. There he also made friends with Hector Berlioz. The most remarkable evidence of this friendship is the autograph manuscript of Berlioz’ Messe solennelle, which came to light again in 1992 at the Antwerp church of St Carolus Borromeus. On the title page Bessems noted: ‘The score of this Mass, which was entirely composed by Berlioz himself, was given to me as a testimony of the old friendship that unites us. A. Bessems, Paris, 1835.’ Undoubtedly Bessems contributed to performances of Berlioz’ work in Paris.
After his studies Bessems stayed in Paris. He taught the violin there, played concerts and was appointed as violin solo of the Théâtre Italien after an audition. For his own purposes he wrote a whole series of chamber music works, sometimes in collaboration with the French pianists Louis-Emmanuel Jadin or Jules Dejazet (the latter also teaming up for compositions with the Flemish cello virtuoso Adrien François Servais). Several works of his were published in Paris, such as songs, violin duos, works for violin and piano, as well as fantasias for violin with orchestral accompaniment.
In between Bessems performed in Italy, Germany, Great Britain and his native country. Thus he was involved in the Rubens celebrations that were organized in Antwerp in August 1840 on the occasion of the unveiling of the Rubens statue of sculptor Willem Geefs. For that festive event Bessems composed an occasional hymn. In 1845 Bessems became the conductor of the Société royale d’Harmonie d’Anvers, a prestigious concert society. A year later, on 7 June 1846, he conducted the inaugural concert of the new concert hall. He started the programme with the overture to Les Francs-Juges by his friend Berlioz, concluding it with the premiere of his own Introduction et valses nouvelles. In the context of the Société d’Harmonie he also participated in chamber music concerts. Thus he performed works by Beethoven and Boccherini there, but also compositions of his own, such as Bérisca (for tenor and cello accompaniment) and an Introduction et thème suisse varié pour le violon. In this period he also composed songs on texts by Victor Hugo.
For Antwerp Cathedral he also wrote several liturgical works. On 24 August 1846 his motet in five movements with cello solo was performed. The 2me Messe solennelle à grand orchestre et choeurs, here in the version with piano or organ accompaniment, was premiered on 22 August 1847 in the cathedral under the baton of his brother Joseph. This happened during a solemn Mass on the occasion of the feast of Mary Queen of Heaven, followed by a large-scale procession. The day after the Journal d’Anvers wrote that Bessems’ Mass ‘succeeds in uniting the religious character with the requirements of modern art forms. Congratulations are in order first and foremost for having used the massive sound of the loudest instruments only with restraint and for having added to the often melodious and characteristic singing both words and an instrumentation where the science of beauty hides itself under good taste and ability.’ Bessems dedicated this Mass in la minor to the otherwise unknown F. Vanden Wyngaert, perhaps an insurance agent.
Bessems’ third Mass, too, was premiered under the baton of his brother, on 16 September 1849. A fourth and fifth orchestral Mass and a Te Deum followed. In the spring of 1850 Bessems relocated again to Paris both as a violin teacher and as a performer. Bessems drew attention to himself as a player of chamber music, devoting a lot of attention to the classical repertoire. Thus he played on 15 March 1860 in the Salle Erard a concert featuring a quartet by Haydn, a trio by Mozart and a sonata by Beethoven, accompanied by Camille Saint-Saëns. Bessems had known Saint-Saëns already from the latter’s childhood: he paid regular visits to the home of his mother, the paintess Clémence Collin who had been widowed since 1835. According to some sources Bessems enjoyed an intimate relatonship with her. Significantly, seven-year-old Saint Saëns dedicated his violin sonata in B-flat to Bessems, a work completed on 8 January 1842, which he performed during his first public appearance as a child prodigy with Bessems himself. The latter’s relationship with Clémence Collin cooled off when it transpired that Bessems was more interested in herself than in her gifted son, but this did not prevent Bessems and Saint-Saëns from performing together for many years.
Occasionally Bessems also played the viola: in April 1864 for example, he accompanied on the viola the young tenor Paul Lhérie in his song Plainte de Mignon at the Salle Pleyel.
In Paris Bessems was appreciated as a performing musician and as a composer, witness the wealth of reviews. Recurring topics there are his commitment as a performer of the classics and the fact that as a composer he goes beyond variations on popular themes, writing original works as well. The music critic Adolphe Botte, for example, wrote on 1 April 1860 in La Revue et Gazette musicale de Paris: ‘A. Bessems is a talented violinist. His distinctive way of playing classical music keeps equally aloof from austerity and from seeking effect for its own sake. He has often been acclaimed in works that form a harmonious whole, executed with a sensitivity and a unity that are remarkable. A. Bessems is a composer to boot, and often produces felicitous melodies. He proved his mettle by playing, last week at his own evening concert, several compositions that were original in a double sense; for he had not taken his cue for their motifs from masters dominating the scene, and yet some of them showed evidence of surprisingly original quality. By virtue of their style and their melodic grace, they please audiences wherever they cherish the serious allied both with the graceful and the brilliant that those salon pieces demand.’
After a short illness Bessems passed away on 19 October 1868 in Paris, but the funeral took place in the church formerly known as St Anthony of Padua in Antwerp on 29 October 1868. A month later, on 30 November, a memorial service was celebrated in the cathedral, the church where it all started for him.
For the time being there is no complete list of his oeuvre, but he left behind at least a hundred works: liturgical music, songs, chamber music, works for the violin (including a concerto) and orchestral works.
In a short obituary notice the Journal d’Anvers emphasized on 23 October 1868 Bessems’ connection with the classical repertoire: ‘Mr Bessems performed the quatuors of the most famous Italian and German masters with an admirably traditional method. (…) The music of our fellow countryman breathes a classical perfume, and in his religious works he was steeped in the emotion and the style of the best masters.’
Jan Dewilde (translation Joris Duytschaever)
Reprint of a score from the music library of Our Lady’s Cathedral in Antwerp, preserved in the library of the Royal Conservatory Antwerp. The edition of this score is part of the Artesis research project The ninenteenth-century music collection of Our Lady’s Cathedral in Antwerp. This score has been published in collaboration with the Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek/Research Centre for Flemish Music (www.svm.be).
Read German or Flemish preface > HERE