The Hector Berlioz Website



Werner Gladines

© 2007 Werner Gladines

© 2007 English translation by Michel Austin

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Berlioz’s Messe Solennelle – the discovery of a ‘burnt’ composition

    In 1991 an extraordinary find was made in the Church of St. Carolus-Borromeus in Antwerp in Belgium: in a wooden chest on the organ platform lay before one’s eyes the manuscript of Berlioz’s Messe Solennelle. Berlioz wrote earlier in his Memoirs [chapter 8] that he had burnt the score because he gradually started to have doubts about the quality of the work. How did this score come to light in Antwerp? Why was it never burnt as Berlioz himself really intended? Why was the manuscript never discovered earlier? And was the manuscript then not discovered earlier? Here is the story.

Berlioz’s Messe Solennelle

    Berlioz wrote his Messe Solennelle in 1824. The rising composer was 20 years old at the time and a student of Lesueur in Paris. This concert mass – his first large-scale work for chorus and orchestra – was commissioned earlier through a certain Masson, choir-master at Saint-Roch in Paris where the work – after an earlier unsuccessful attempt – received its first performance on 10 July 1825. Two years later – on 22 November 1827 – it was performed again in Saint-Eustache. Subsequently Berlioz burnt this mass – spurning his first-born and thoroughly aware of his mature qualities as a composer – together with several other smaller works. He was still to utilise a few passages from the mass in later compositions. There is no further trace of the work.

    In 1991 the Messe Solennelle turned up suddenly in the Church of St. Carolus-Borromeus in Antwerp. It was discovered there in the organ gallery in the vicinity of the organ by Frans Moors. Moreover it was obvious that it was the original autograph score by Berlioz and this is shown by the inscription inside: ‘La partition de cette Messe, entièrement de la main de Berlioz, m’a été donnée comme souvenir de la vieille amitié qui me lie à lui. – A. Bessems, Paris 1835’ [‘The score of this Mass, entirely in Berlioz’s hand, was given to me in memory of the old friendship which unites us. – A. Bessems, Paris 1835’]

The journey from Paris to Antwerp

    How the work came to be in Antwerp seems not too difficult to understand. A. Bessems – as the inscription declares – was clearly Antoine Bessems (1806-1868), a violinist and composer and a native from Antwerp who spent a large part of his life in Paris, where he went at the age of 18 in order to attend the Conservatoire. The fact is that at the time Antwerp did not yet have its own Conservatoire. Bessems studied under Pierre Baillot (1771-1842), and in 1829 he became first violin in the orchestra of the Théâtre Italien. In 1846 he came back to Antwerp and conducted the ‘Société Royale d’Harmonie’. Subsequently Bessems returned to Paris where he gave violin lessons and composed chiefly chamber music for violin and cello. He also wrote a few religious works. He must have known Berlioz well, and both attended the same Conservatoire at the same time. As a violinist he was of assistance to Berlioz and it is possible that the manuscript was given to him by way of thanks and/or recompense for his services. Bessems was at the same time on good terms with Camille Saint-Saëns. The two however were to fall out with each other after Saint-Saëns learned of the relationship between Bessems and his mother. Antoine Bessems died in Paris in 1868.

    After the death of Antoine the manuscript of the Messe Solennelle came into the hands of his brother Joseph Bessems (1809-1892) who was three years younger. Joseph Bessems was a cellist and composer, and a teacher at the school of Peter Benoit, which was later to become the Antwerp Conservatoire. Around the time of his elder brother’s death he was connected to the St. Carolus-Borromeus Church as conductor and it is very likely that he stored the score together with the other works in the oak chest near the organ where it remained undisturbed for over a hundred years, until Frans Moors discovered it by accident in 1991. But there is more.

The inventory of a music library – SC 20: a missed opportunity

    As well as that of Frans Moors the curator of the church of St. Carolus-Borromeus also gave me the name of Jean Noppe. I had a conversation with Mr Noppe in the church of St. Carolus-Borromeus one afternoon around the end of November [2006]. Jean Noppe was organist and choir-master at the church at the time when he himself still lived in the parish. At present he lives elsewhere in Antwerp and helps out where he is able to, whether this means sitting at the organ or working with a choir. Earlier that day he was still playing at St Andrews Church in Antwerp. ‘I can manage well enough at the organ but the real literature is wasted on me’, he confessed to me. We sat down on the uncomfortable church stools and he asked me what I wanted to know. My answer was as brief as it was clear: everything you know about the Messe Solennelle.

    ‘We must go back to somewhere in the mid sixties – it was in 1964 or 65. One day the then organist and conductor of St. Carolus-Borromeus, Alfred Cuyt, took the initiative of drawing up an inventory of the music library of the church. Alfred Cuyt, myself, and my father – who at the time was on the governing body of the church – wanted to get the job done together and we started by making a selection from the works: scores in good condition – scores in reasonable condition – and scores in poor condition. We wanted to draw up an inventory only of the works which were still in good or reasonable condition. As it was rather cold in the church we also took the books home where we could work in the warmth and comfort of the living room. All the works were carefully examined and given a stamp with a number preceded by the letters ‘SC’. (‘SC’ stands here for St. Carolus-Borromeus) One day in the course of drawing up the inventory we noticed that among the works there was a manuscript score by Berlioz. The score – a bulky volume – was in reasonable condition and was like all the others given a stamp and also received the number SC 20. Subsequently it was neatly put back into the wooden chest and stored together with the other works near the organ’. Jean noticed my amazement and continued: ‘At the time Berlioz – and certainly in Antwerp – was not as celebrated a composer as is the case today. It is only later – in the late 80s and in the early 90s – that there arose a renewed interest in the composer. This must have been in 1964 or 65, as my father died a few years later, in 1967.’ When I asked why the discovery was not made public at the time he could not give me a clear-cut answer, and he seemed rather to be evading my question.

    Jean pointed to the organ in the organ gallery and resumed his story: ‘to the left of the organ there was a wooden bench and on the right side stood the oak chest where the score was kept in storage’. I asked him whether we could soon get close to the organ to catch a glimpse. ‘It is untidy and dusty and besides the organ is no longer in the very best condition’. He obviously wants to apologise for the condition in which the organ and the platform are. I tell him that I would like to take a few photos and that untidiness and dust come in handy to give the whole thing a romantic colour. Jean continues his account and suddenly jumps forward to 1992, when the discovery of the manuscript was extensively publicised in the press.

    ‘One day the then priest of the church of St. Carolus-Borromeus – Father Jansen – phoned me with the request that I should come with him to the church immediately. There was an army of people from the press at the church: people from television, photographers, journalists and a French musicologist who had all come for the Berlioz manuscript. Father Jansen was not able to reach Frans Moors and I hurriedly made my way to the church. They overwhelmed me with all sorts of questions and asked me to show the score. Finally they pressed me to play a piece from the mass on the organ. I tried to make them understand that this was an orchestral mass and that it was not so self-evident to extract pieces from it to play on the organ. As they continued to insist I looked for a passage in the score that was more or less playable on the organ and my choice fell on the ‘Incarnatus’. (he meant perhaps the ‘O Salutaris’ – as seems clear after checking) ‘That seemed a demanding task: I was not used to so much attention and moreover I was blinded by the fierce lights of the television crew’. When I asked what was the reason why the television crew had suddenly turned up Jean gave a rather incoherent answer: ‘Mr Moors deserves some credit for the discovery of the score, but we knew as early as 1964 that it was to be found in our library. Consequently the discovery was not such an accident in 1991. ‘They’ were on its tracks.’

    Jean suggests we move near the organ and he takes an impressive iron key to open the door next to the landing. We take the broad stone steps near the organ gallery and have to move some rubbish on the side before we can climb the steep wooden stairs near the organ: ‘In spite of my age it still seems to me natural to go up and down the stairs’ Jean remarks. The organ is indeed there in rather sorry condition and as for the platform he had not exaggerated. Moreover it is very dark. Jean points out to me the bench on the left on the platform and walks along the organ towards the chest on the other side. He shows me the place in the chest where the Berlioz manuscript was: ‘The works were placed vertically in order of classification and the Berlioz work was approximately in the middle. The original manuscript is still in Antwerp and has only been away once.’ I take a few photos of the platform and of the chest, and tell him that I saw the score in Paris at the Bibliothèque Nationale Mitterrand at the time of the Berlioz exhibition in 2003. Jean moves towards the organ and sighs that it is out of order. ‘It is perhaps interesting to take also photos of the organ.’ I agree to this and take a few photos. We look for a way back down below. ‘Berlioz is rather bombastic, don’t you think? I still remember the evening when the work was performed here in the church, there were four harps in the front row – can you imagine that – a mass with four harps, no less? And was Berlioz really as much of an innovator as they want to make us believe? Saint-Saëns was an innovator and went over completely to the side of the dreamy Debussy.’ I say in reply that in my opinion Berlioz trod paths that were well and truly novel and that in spite of the structural shortcomings of a young composer the Messe Solennelle is quite a significant work. And that Camille Saint-Saëns was one of the greatest critics of Debussy. We say goodbye and I thank Mr Noppe warmly for the conversation and the instructive tour around the church.

    It is a fact that the drawing-up of the inventory did take place – only that Mr Noppe is somewhat confused as regards the point in time. It was carried out in 1956, and not in 1964 as he maintains. That the Messe Solennelle was also included in the inventory is shown by the stamp SC20 in the score. The question remains why the work landed straight back in the chest without the slightest publicity. Everything seems to point to the fact that it was through ignorance that the score was treated in a routine way.

A search for Mozart’s Coronation Mass which got out of hand

    Frans Moors – a retired teacher and also organist and choir-master – had part of his musical education under Alfred Cuyt at the church of St. Carolus-Borromeus. Since his youth Moors lived all the time in the neighbourhood of the church of St. Carolus-Borromeus. Jean Noppe knew him also from his younger years. In the meantime he must have played on more or less every church organ in Antwerp. Since leaving Antwerp he plays the organ in various churches in his community – Schoten. I met Mr Moors at his own home where he took me immediately to his study. The shelves on the walls are loaded with scores and all sorts of music books, and more or less everything in the room points to music in one way or another. I feel immediately at home there and I am very curious to hear his story. A friendly person, he takes all his time and relates his experiences in an enthralling but serene manner.

    ‘In 1991 I was asked to play the organ for a wedding in a church here in Schoten. The lady who was to be responsible for the soprano part stood up to play pieces from Mozarts’s Coronation Mass. Consequently I had to search urgently for a score of the mass and thought immediately of the music library of the church of St. Carolus-Borromeus. The library was in fact at the time (and is now) nothing more than a few old scores of miscellaneous origin in the wooden chest on the organ platform in the church. While I was searching through the chest for the Mozart mass my eye fell on a bulky volume in the midst of other works. Because of its size it immediately attracted my attention. Because I found it hard to believe that such a bulky volume could only comprise just one mass, impelled by my curiosity I took the work out of the chest and began to have a look at it. It seemed to be a handwritten score of Berlioz’s Messe Solennelle. At the time I did not have the slightest idea of the value of the work let alone the authenticity of the manuscript. Moreover I hardly knew Berlioz. However what did interest me very much was to hold in my hands a work that was virtually unknown and I thought it would be useful to make a copy for my own use. It could come in handy to play pieces from it in one service or another; in this way I could present a piece with something original in it. At the time I went every Wednesday to the church to copy the work – I did that by hand and transcribed the work patiently. Because the working method seemed rather cumbrous – the original score comprised rather more than 420 pages – I went on one occasion to the church with a portable copying machine in order to make a duplicate of the work in this way. At that time nothing more was available on the spot. Since the original score exhibited a number of fairly unusual features – the arrangement of the parts on the page differed substantially from current practice – I began to transcribe the complete work in a version that would be more readable for our time. That cost quite a lot of time and energy. (he shows me his beautifully bound ‘transcribed’ version)

    ‘Little by little I became more curious and I began to ask myself questions about the nature and origin of the work. I set out to investigate. At that time I went on several occasions to the library of the Conservatoire in Antwerp looking for information on Berlioz and his works. One day I found there a Resurrexit by Berlioz. I copied the Resurrexit, took it home with me where I compared it with that from the Messe Solennelle in the church – to my amazement the two looked nearly identical. Afterwards I began to read Berlioz’s Memoirs and it seemed – according to his own words – that he had burnt his Messe Solennelle. I had got hold of yet more works about Berlioz and in all of them mention was made of the ‘lost scores’. It was known that the work had been written but the score itself could not be found because it was supposed to have gone up in flames. It then really started to dawn on me that I had something unique in my hands. I resolved to continue to maintain complete discretion and stay calm over my investigation’.

    ‘I had my doubts about the handwriting. There  was it is true the inscription by Antoine Bessems which pointed to the authenticity of the manuscript, but after all Bessems could equally have written something. Moreover the handwriting looked like pure calligraphy. I thought of the usual sloppiness with which most composers write their scores – consider for example Beethoven’s handwriting – and I therefore found it hard to assume that the work was an autograph. I held on to the view that I was dealing with a careful handwritten copy. And yet… the inscription by Bessems bothered me and what is more there were also the numerous annotations in the margins of the score which almost without exception could have been by the composer himself; and yet it seemed to me less obvious that – in case this was a copy – these notes would have been copied as well’.

    ‘I got to know that the German publisher Bärenreiter was at about this time busy with a new edition of the works of Berlioz, and that the Briton John Eliot Gardiner was actively involved with the recording of Berlioz’s works for the Philips label. I wrote both to Bärenreiter and to Philips with the news of my discovery. I received replies practically by return post. Bärenreiter informed me that they would send an expert to verify the authenticity of the manuscript and Philips told me to wait for the result of the investigation into the manuscript by Bärenreiter. The expert – the [Briton] Hugh Macdonald – did not keep me waiting long; we went to the church to have a look at the score. McDonald’s verdict left no room for doubt: we were dealing indisputably with the autograph score of Berlioz’s Messe Solennelle! I had made a discovery of great magnitude. Not long after – on 22 November 1992 – my discovery was announced publicly in Paris. In the time which followed I often had the press on the floor: journalists and television crews from home and abroad’. (he shows me all sorts of press cuttings and tells me of the video recording which he had preserved from this period) I bring up the question about Alfred Cuyt/Jean Noppe and their inventory in 1956. ‘The work was indeed taken out of the chest at that time and recorded in the inventory. Alas neither of them had any inkling of the nature and value of the work although Mr Noppe maintains now that ‘they’ were aware of the fact that the manuscript was in the church. At that time (in 1991) I had the necessary permission from Jean Noppe to have a look at the works in the organ gallery and to copy them. I was there every Wednesday always for the same work and he never asked any questions’. Finally I sounded Mr Moors on why in 1868 Joseph Bessems set the work aside in the oak chest. ‘Joseph Bessems had probably hidden it at that time in the chest. He must have had a look at the score and quickly come to the decision that such a work could not be performed with a normal church choir and orchestra. Anyone with a little understanding of music can see that at a glance’.

Taken away from under their nose

    The publisher Bärenreiter secured almost immediately the rights to the work and used as basis for their edition the modernised version by Frans Moors. Gardiner went round the great concert halls of Europe with the mass. The work received its first performance at Bremen on 3 October 1993 and ended – with on the way stops at places such as Vienna and Madrid – in Westminster Cathedral in London on 12 October 1993 where the work was recorded by Philips – the first recording in the world of the Messe Solennelle. A remarkable detail: the work was not performed in Paris because the then president of France – Mitterrand – demanded that it should be performed by a French conductor and a French orchestra. The Messe Solennelle was then performed in Vézelay on 7 October 1993 under the direction of Jean-Paul Penin. On 15 May 1994 it was performed in Washington Cathedral in Washington under the direction of J. Reilly Lewis. On 25 June 1994 it was then performed in Belgium for the first time, in the Basilica of Tongeren, under the direction of Ostrovski. And what about the church of St. Carolus-Borromeus? It had to wait till 1997 when Marc Minkowski performed it with the orchestra of Flemish Opera.

    Mr Moors shows me his photo album and gives me the text and an explanation: ‘The time after the discovery had at its best its advantages. We were invited to the performances in Bremen, London and Washington. Subsequently we were also invited to La Côte Saint-André where the mass was performed in 2003. I have by the way handed over to the museum at La Côte Saint-André all the correspondence dealing with the find. I regret however very much the fact that I never received an invitation from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France on the occasion of the great Berlioz exhibition in 2003. I had also to reckon with some negative reactions. Such was that from the musicologist from Antwerp who openly expressed his displeasure in a newspaper over the fact that I had conducted myself the investigation. The man seemed to be of the opinion that such a thing is the exclusive preserve of musicologists’. I pointed out to him that such an attitude verges on jealousy and that it does not matter at all who brings such an investigation to a satisfactory conclusion. ‘I can somehow understand his indignation – after all an amateur has taken the work from under their nose. But there is also something more – I too know my way around archives and libraries. It was lying there for all these years just for the taking, under their nose!’ (he laughs) We chat a little more about Berlioz, Rameau, Monteverdi and the Romanesque churches in Auvergne. On my departure he gives me also a first printing of Bärenreiter’s study score of the mass as well as a few photos.



Summary of the passages borrowed by Berlioz from his Messe Solennelle in later compositions.

1. Kyrie – bars 1 to 13: in the Offertoire of the Grande Messe des morts (1837)

2. Gloria – bars 63 to 68: in the finale of the first act of his opera Benvenuto Cellini (1836) and in the overture Le Carnaval romain (1843)

3. Gratias – bars 1 to 28: in the ‘Scène aux champs’ of the Symphonie fantastique (1830)

4. Resurrexit – bars 32 to 75: in the ‘Christe, Rex gloriae’ in his Te Deum (1849)

5. Resurrexit – bars 76 to 98: in the ‘Dies Irae’ of the Grande Messe des morts (1837)

6. Resurrexit – bars 99 to the end: in the finale of the first act of Benvenuto Cellini (1836)

7. Agnus Dei: in the ‘Te Ergo Quaesumus’ of the Te Deum (1849)

See also on this site Berlioz and his Music – Self-borrowings


Church of St. Carolus-Borromeus



Church of St. Carolus-Borromeus – interior


The Organ


The wooden chest in November 2006


The Messe Solennelle on the wooden chest – 1991


Frans Moors


Messe Solennelle: Quoniam No. 4
Il faut refaire cette exécrable fugue


Messe Solennelle – title page


Messe Solennelle – inscription by Bessems






De Standaard, November 1992


(Translation of the above text)

A work by Berlioz rediscovered in Antwerp.
    PARIS (AFP) – The first major work of the French composer Hector Berlioz has been rediscovered. The score lay in the Church of St. Carolus-Borromeus in Antwerp, and was found by the organist Frans Moors. This was announced by the Belgian musicologist Patrick Gillis.
    The work is a Missa Solemnis for soloists, chorus and orchestra which was written in 1824. It lasts approximately one hour and a half. According to Gillis the work will soon be performed in public. The work was thought to have been lost. The document was declared to be authentic by the American [British, in fact] expert Hugh MacDonald.

We are most grateful to Mr Werner Gladines for this original illustrated reportage based on the interviews he conducted in November 2006 for our site. We would also like to express our gratitude to Messrs Frans Moors and Jean Noppe for their valuable participation in the interview programme.

Related pages on this site:

Berlioz Biography  
Berlioz: A Complete Listing of his Musical Works  
Berlioz and his Music – Self-borrowings  
Berlioz’s Memoirs

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 1 February 2007.

© 2007 Werner Gladines
© 2007 Michel Austin for the English and French translations

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