Antoon (Antoine) Bessems was initiated into music in the Antwerp church of St Carolus Borromeus and in the music chapel of Our Lady’s Cathedral. In 1826 Bessems moved to the Conservatoire de Paris, where he 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 1991 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. 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 writing the occasional hymn for the Rubens celebrations that were organized in Antwerp in August 1840. 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 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.
For the 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 was premiered on 22 August 1847 in the cathedral under the baton of his brother Joseph. 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 relationship 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.
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.
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek - Jan Dewilde (translation: Joris Duytschaever)