MUSIC / A Mass of audacity: Long thought lost, Berlioz's first major work has turned up in an Antwerp loft. Hugh Macdonald catches the excitement
Saturday 13 March 1993
Such things are found, according to tradition, in old oak chests in dusty organ lofts beneath a pile of long-forgotten music. These are the very circumstances in which Frans Moors, an organist and schoolteacher who has lived in Antwerp all his life, came across the Berlioz Mass. In 1991, Moors was asked to play the organ for a performance of Mozart's Coronation Mass. Unhappy with his own copy of that work, he remembered one he had used many years before. He went to the church of St Charles Borromaeus and searched through the relatively small collection of music housed in the organ loft. A bound volume caught his eye, labelled 'MESSE SOLENNELLE PAR H. BERLIOZ'. Moors might have taken no further notice had he not read an inscription on the title page: 'The score of this Mass, entirely in Berlioz's hand, was given to me as a souvenir of the long-standing friendship which binds us,' signed 'A. Bessems, Paris 1835'.
Though he knew little about Berlioz, Moors none the less decided to investigate further. He read the composer's account of the work's composition and performance, concluding with the words, 'I was not in any doubt how little my Mass was worth, so I extracted the Resurrexit, which I quite liked (I subsequently destroyed that too), and burnt the rest.'
Moors' first idea was to offer his discovery to a recording company, but when EMI turned it down as of no interest he wrote instead to Barenreiter-Verlag, publishers of the New Berlioz Edition. As general editor of the series I went at once to Antwerp and was able to confirm, with a considerable sense of wonder, that this is indeed the lost Mass, in the form of a complete autograph full score of 420 pages in remarkably good condition.
Berlioz composed the work in 1824 in response to a request from the church of St Roch, Paris, where it was performed on 10 July 1825 - the first occasion that the public, and indeed Berlioz himself, had had the opportunity to hear his music on a large scale. A second performance, in 1827 at St Eustache, was also the start of Berlioz's illustrious career as a conductor. When he composed the Mass he was 20 years old, still innocent of any knowledge of Weber, Beethoven, Goethe or Shakespeare. His idols were Le Sueur and Spontini among the living, Gluck above all among the dead.
His models for a solemn Mass were the series of Masses that Cherubini and Le Sueur, his revered and eccentric teacher, were writing for the Chapelle Royale. But despite his youth Berlioz had already advanced beyond his teacher in several particulars, most strikingly in the field of instrumentation. He was expecting a large choir and orchestra, larger than that of the Chapelle Royale, so he wrote for full brass and a variety of low brass instruments including serpent, ophicleide and 'buccin', a species of trombone in which the bell is fashioned to represent a fiery dragon. He called for three soloists (soprano, tenor and bass) and a large chorus alternating with a smaller church choir such as that at St Roch.
The largest movements are the Kyrie, the Resurrexit (the centrepiece of the work, and the most advanced in style), and the Domine salvum. The Quoniam is a vigorous fugue, across the top of which Berlioz later, in a fit of loathing which marked his attitude to fugues for the rest of his life, wrote in large letters, 'This execrable fugue must be rewritten. Let us never conform with custom when it is ridiculous. I swear I will never write a fugue again except in an opera where the situation demands something of that kind, for a chorus of drunks for example or for a battle of incarnate devils.'
These words uncannily anticipate two of Berlioz's most celebrated fugues, the 'Amen' chorus in La Damnation de Faust and the 'Ronde du sabbat' in the Symphonie fantastique. But the Mass anticipates later works in more substantial ways. It has long been known that the music of the Resurrexit was salvaged by Berlioz for incorporation in later works, including the famous 'Tuba mirum' fanfares in the Requiem. The Mass manuscript reveals that these fanfares existed in a form earlier still than the published Resurrexit version, and also that four more passages from later works were saved from the Mass. They include part of the slow movement of the Symphonie fantastique, an early version of the 'Offertoire' in the Requiem, the main theme of the Roman Carnival Overture, and the 'Te ergo' from the Te deum composed, we now know, 25 years earlier than has hitherto been supposed.
Two questions need to be answered: who was Bessems, and what did Berlioz burn? Antoine Bessems' career is quite well documented. Born in Antwerp in 1806, he studied the violin in Paris with Baillot and remained there for most of his life. He became well known as a teacher and as a performer of classical chamber music, active until his death in Paris in 1868. Saint-Saens, at the age of five, wrote a violin sonata for him.
In his inscription on the Mass, Bessems claimed a 'long-standing friendship' with Berlioz, yet his name appears nowhere in Berlioz's Memoirs, correspondence or feuilletons, leaving only the slightest evidence of friendship. This is provided by four lists of orchestral musicians in Berlioz's hand drawn up for his concerts of 1834 and 1835. These prove that Berlioz at least knew Bessems a little. They both enrolled as Conservatoire students in 1826. Bessems probably played in the 1827 performance of the Mass, in which many Conservatoire students participated. If so, one can imagine him asking Berlioz at the time of the 1835 concerts what had happened to the work. Berlioz, having no more use for the manuscript, may have given the score to Bessems, who, as we know from one of the lists, played in the November 1835 concert for nothing. At his death in 1868 the manuscript probably passed to his brother Joseph, choirmaster at St Charles Borromaeus in Antwerp for over 50 years. After Joseph's death Berlioz's Mass (and three Masses by his brother Antoine) slid unnoticed into that old oak chest.
Berlioz manifestly did not burn the autograph full score. His often-repeated assertion that he destroyed the work can be understood in two ways: firstly, as Jacques Barzun has pointed out, in a world where all rooms had fireplaces and refuse collection was unknown, 'burn' and 'throw away' are synonymous terms. Even 'give away' (as happened to the Mass) could be identified with 'throw away', hence 'burn'. Secondly, the full orchestral and choral material copied by Berlioz himself in 1825 has disappeared without trace. It is very likely that Berlioz burnt this as a gesture of rejection of the work itself without going so far as to burn his autograph full score.
It would be pleasing to report that the Mass is a masterpiece, but Berlioz's rejection of it and the tender age at which he wrote it should be a warning not to expect too much. Some movements are surprisingly old-fashioned, some are audaciously new. The music leaves a mixed impression if we consider each movement separately, yet if we contemplate the work as a whole it is astonishing that Berlioz had achieved so much so rapidly and that he already displayed such a forceful and individual imagination.
Performances in October by the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, Monteverdi Choir and John Eliot Gardiner are being planned for Paris, Bremen and London, plus a Philips recording. Barenreiter-Verlag will publish the score, edited by Hugh Macdonald
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