Official Release: 17 September 2021
Napoléon Coste was born on the 27th of June 1805 in Amondans in the department of Doubs in eastern France, a date that was not established until 1982. He grew up in the neighbourhood of Ornans, to which he later dedicated several compositions. In 1813 he was in the Dutch town of Delfzijl with his father, a captain in the French army, he passed the Zuiderzee and crossed the river Rhine. The memory of these places returned in his compositions, the Souvenirs. He started his career as a guitarist in 1826 in Valenciennes, where he lived as a youth, began to compose, and played in a concert with the travelling virtuoso Sagrini. At the end of 1828 he settled in Paris, where he stayed for almost the rest of his artistic career. There, in the centre of important musical developments, he joined the circles of musicians who originated from Valenciennes, and also of famous guitarists, among whom Sor became of great importance to him, as he studied harmony and counterpoint with him and became his friend, joining him in concerts. His life in Paris is expressed in several programmatic compositions, after Berlioz’ invention of musical drama.
He developed his artistic talent, participated in mixed concerts, where he played his own compositions, most of which were published by well-known publishers or by himself, chez l’auteur. His performance and compositions were praised in the upcoming musical journals of the time, but the guitar as an instrument was generally disdained, in such a way that it eventually disappeared from the musical scene during his lifetime. When Coste came to Paris, the guitar was very popular and was played at a high level, as can be seen in the many guitar methods of the time. But the instrument became popular among amateurs mostly, causing more artistic compositions to become difficult to publish. Therefore, Coste composed and arranged much popular music for pedagogical and commercial purpose. As a guitar teacher he has many pupils and he made a revision of Sor’s method in 1851, one of the last methods published in Paris, known as the Méthode Coste-Sor. He entered upper class musical society upon joining the Société académique des Enfants d’Apollon in 1841 and the musical freemasons’ lodge Les Frères Unis Inséparables in 1843, where he gave concerts on his heptacorde, the seven-string guitar made for him by the luthier Lacôte. Many of his compositions were meant for this instrument. The recordings of this compact disc are performed by Carlo Fierens on an original heptacorde made by René Lacôte in 1855, which matches the very same heptacorde Coste designed. His fame reached international level and he was visited in Paris by admirers from Stockholm, Copenhagen, Riga, and St. Petersburg. In 1856 the Russian guitar-playing nobleman Makaroff opened a contest for guitar composition and construction in Brussels. Coste sent in five compositions, out of which his Grande Sérénade opus 30 wan second prize, coming in after Mertz’s Concertino. He made no use of this laureate to travel through Europe as a guitar virtuoso, but returned to Paris, and also, to his own regret, to the job he had as an administrator at the municipality, from which he was pensioned in 1875. He had fewer pupils, had to publish his works by himself, and moreover injured his left shoulder twice, first in 1863, then again in 1874, but nevertheless he continued to perform in concerts.
His Éudes de Genre opus 38 were published by Richault c. 1872 and were dedicated to many of his pupils, among them Louise Olive Pauilhé, who he married in 1871, during the Prussian occupation of Paris. In his last years he still composed masterpieces as before, but also more didactic and easy pieces, which nevertheless are fine examples of his Romantic style. He died on 14 January 1883. His works were collected by admirers but disappeared from the concert repertoire. Only a few of his studies remained well known among guitarists, until Simon Wynberg publishes his complete works in 1981, opening up new attention for his oeuvre, that appears more and more in concert life since that time. This is becoming evident in the present series of recordings by Carlo Fierens.
The music of Coste displays a wide spectrum of characteristics of the Romantic style. The theme and variation genre aside, Coste chooses to continue the composition with new musical ideas or varied repetition of these, which gives his works an episodic or rhapsodic character. Over time his compositions show more and more Romantic characteristics. There is a wave of periods with strong Romantic and light Romantic compositions. The latter have a more didactic or commercial purpose.
The importance of Romanticism in Coste’s music is reflected mostly in aspects of harmony, wherein complexity and intensity of texture are characteristic. His use of altered chords and dissonances can be related to that of Liszt, his harmonic progressions to those of Berlioz, his harmonic freedom to that of Chopin. His chromatic modulations, with or without common tone, are comparable to those of Schubert. In melody the figurations are most important, showing the aspect of virtuosity in his music. Without being an imitator, his texture can be related to the figuration and passages of Chopin, his practice of chromaticism with that of Schubert, his high level of playing technique to that of Liszt – all this connected to his great control of the instrument, with which he expands the limits of technical possibilities, based on the principles of Sor.
In musical expression, dynamics and articulation contribute to the emotion. Here external references can be made to the vocal portamento of Chopin and the arioso of Schubert. Few indications to exoticism are found, except perhaps influences from Spanish music that could be considered exotic. In the Romanticism of Coste story as well as folklore and the use of rests contribute to the narrative character of his music. Here, historicism plays a role in his programmatic works, which represent, just as with Berlioz, musical dramatics. For all these aspects, Coste can be placed at the centre of the musical developments appearing in Romantic music in Paris in the middle of the 19th century. True enough, in his own words, a modest composer for a modest instrument, in his masterpieces, Napoléon Coste has succeeded in elevating Romantic guitar music to a high level. Among the great three composers of Romantic guitar music, with Mertz and Zani de Ferranti, Coste can be considered as most important. Coste surpasses the other two in a musical way and knows how to express a multifaceted palette of Romantic elements in his music, which is further enhanced by his intensive harmonic writing. His work is versatile and varied, attractive to the listener, player, and analyst in both its broad lines and its details. From his early works on, which already show some boisterousness, a great development leading to his masterworks can be seen in the middle of the century, in which the Makaroff compositions play a major role. His approach towards virtuosity and complexity is of such a delicate and logical nature that his music attains a high technical level, never at the cost of performance. The musical expression, to which Coste gives his full attention, comes to maturity this way. In this study the Romanticism in his music becomes transparent, by way of analysis and defining criteria. These premises and results can be used as a starting point for research into the works of Zani and Mertz, to further demonstrate the importance of Coste for Romantic guitar music.
Dr. Ari van Vliet
Biographer of Napoléon Coste: Composer
and Guitarist in the Musical Life of 19th-century Paris
Variations et Fantaisies
This second volume of the collection groups a variety of pieces that has intertextuality in common: each one is a fantasy, a re-elaboration, or a set of variation on a pre-existing composed material, of a widely different nature.
It goes without saying that intertextuality has always been a key element in music production of all ages, but the character of the pieces presented here is representative of a common style that has its peak in the first half of the nineteenth century: countless pieces for guitar, as well as for piano and other instruments, are conceived as variations or free fantasies on a given theme, often taken from a famous Opera aria. We shall see that the difference between fantasy and set of variations is not always as clear cut as we might expect.
The Variations et finale sur un motif favori de la Famille Suisse de Weigl is recorded as Coste’s Op. 2, thus being his first survived work in his catalogue (Op. 1 has yet to be identified). It can be described as a fully traditional theme with variations, with a recurring ritornello, a feature that shares with WoO 9. Die Schweizerfamilie by Joseph Weigl (1766-1846) is a singspiel that was performed in French in Paris with great success. While now this seems quite an obscure Opera, we can guess its popularity also by the fact that its themes inspired works by Matteo Carcassi and Zani de Ferranti. The “grazioso” theme is presented without introduction and subsequently variated with the interpolation of a chorus that makes use of the “campanella” effect.
Coste’s Op. 4, Fantaisie Composée sur un Motif du ballet d’Armide, published “chez l’auteur” in 1832, is certainly a more ambitious piece if compared to Op. 2. This was clear also to the composer’s mind, since later in his life he wrote that he considered this work “un peu moins mauvaise” (see Ari van Vliet, ch. IV) than his other early works. In fact, it poses greater technical difficulties, and it features modulations that are more far-reaching than usual. The solemnity of the piece is clear from the very onset in c minor, which suggests the by then outdated French overtures to ballets and operas. The melody that Coste uses in this piece was quite old at the time of the composition, being composed some fifty years earlier by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714 – 1787). The German composer was still enjoying a solid reputation in France especially thanks to the efforts of Berlioz who championed his music in contrast to the Italian contemporary Opera composers.
Op. 6 is also a theme with variations, but just like Op. 4 it does not mention that in the title, privileging the definition of “fantasy”: Fantaisie de Concert. In fact, only Op.2 and WoO 9 (which we can guess dates to the same years) bares the word “variations” in the title: a clear sign that the genre was fading away, despite being reinterpreted in a freer version. On the manuscript, the theme is credited to Meyerbeer (1791-1864) whose operas took France by storm in those very years. Although some resemblances can be drawn with a number in his most famous Les Huguenots, the actual theme has not been identified yet. The lengthy introduction, as well as the episode in minor key and the brilliant coda, contribute to the high profile of the piece, which is definitely written for a concert setting, although dedicated to a student of Coste, Mlle Albertine Douillez.
Two of the most important figures of Italian Opera at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini, are represented in Op. 9 and Op. 16 which date around the same period (ca. 1840) although the latter was published few years after its first performance by Napoléon Coste. Both are pot-pourris of arias and themes from the well-known Operas Lucia di Lammermoor and Norma, in a style that was certainly more in fashion than the old-style theme with variations. We can think at the Fantasy on motives from “La Traviata” by Julian Arcas (the work has long been credited to Francisco Tarrega) as a representative piece of this genre, but the undisputed expert was clearly Coste’s coeval Johann Kaspar Mertz. In fact, Mertz wrote his own fantasy on Lucia which might have borrowed ideas from Coste’s Op. 9. Both Op. 9 and 16 are quite similar in that they feature an introduction and then the themes are presented with short connecting phrases in between, occasionally with diminutions that can recall the contemporary performance practice of belcanto embellishments.
The sparkling piece La Cachucha, op. 13 is a testament on the popularity that Spanish dances started to enjoy in France around the first decades of the nineteenth century. A series of ballerinas (notably Fanny Elssler) and choreographers introduced this dance that then inspired composers to approach this tune. Alongside several guitarists, the popular melody inspired Chabrier, Johann Strauss (who turned it into a Galop), and Czerny among others. Like in many other cases, Coste perfectly fits in this milieu with his own interpretation, a brilliant and assertive fantasy which alternates the main motive with modulating episodes.
La Romanesca, op. 19b (numbering of works can lead to some confusion as it overlaps with Coste’s Souvenirs, Opp. 17-23), stands apart in this program as the precomposed material is quite mysterious in this case. Of course, the old Romanesca melodic-harmonic formula that originated in the vihuela piece Guardame las vacas is familiar to guitarists, but the melody used here bears no resemblance to that one. Nevertheless, the antique aura is clearly alluded to even in the subtitle: Fameux air de dance de la fin du 16.eme Siècle, which points to the importance of the “Concerts historiques” sponsored by François-Joseph Fétis, that aimed to rediscover the music of the past. It is possible that Fétis himself wrote the melody for this composition, but Coste’s model could have been Franz Liszt version of it (composed ca. 1832-1833), which is strikingly resemblant.
WoO9 (in the catalogue by Wynberg revised by van Vliet) is, like the Norma Fantaisie, based on a work by Bellini, Il Pirata (1827), and specifically on Gualtiero’s cabaletta “Ma non fia sempre odiata…”. A surviving manuscript attributes the theme to Rossini, but the mistake cannot be Coste’s responsibility. The form and character of the piece suggests the late 1830s as possible composition date (Il Pirata was performed in Paris in 1833, see Ari van Vliet, ch. IV) but it is not certain why this piece didn’t make it to the official catalogue with a proper edition and an opus number. It is clearly an ambitious work that, despite the standard form of theme and variations, manages to introduce elements of interest, such as the lengthy variation on harmonics, or the strikingly beautiful variation in minor key.
Liner Notes © Carlo Fierens
7-string guitar (Heptacorde)
René Lacôte, Paris 1855
In 19th century France, René Lacôte (ca. 1785-1868) was the most important and innovative guitar maker. A pupil of Joseph Pons, Lacôte was able to develop and improve his master’s construction project, achieving greater resonance and balanced tone quality and improving the ergonomic functionality of the instrument. His guitars were beautifully and tastefully designed and crafted, and the very high quality of the woods he used, above all mahogany, maple, Brazilian rosewood and Ceylonese satin wood, make his instruments consummately elegant and real masterpieces. Lacôte deposited some interesting patents and co-operated with many famous guitar virtuosos, including Fernando Sor, Dionisio Aguado, Ferdinando Carulli, Luigi Legnani and Napoléon Coste (1805-1883). The latter was a major figure in guitar composition of mid-nineteenth century France and had a close connection with Lacôte. Coste owned many instruments built by Lacôte, particularly “heptacorde” guitars (seven strings instruments with six stopped strings and one extra floating string, tuned to D or occasionally to C) which perhaps he himself modified to adapt them to his needs and to his own playing technique. In the appendix of his revised edition of Fernando Sor’s well-known method for guitar, Coste wrote about the seven-string guitar: “Some years ago, I arranged to have built in the workshop of Mr. Lacôte, a maker of stringed instruments in Paris, a guitar designed to yield a larger volume of tone and, above all, a more beautiful quality of tone. […]I called this new type of guitar a Heptacorde […].” Coste’s project consisted in making substantial changes to the usual Lacôte guitars. The first atypical element is the tailpiece fixed to the end-block of the sound box, on which are anchored the seven strings that cross the massive maple bridge, which replaced the original one. The considerable height of the strings on the soundboard, due to the large size of the new bridge, required the placement of a huge maple thickness under the new extended fingerboard and needed the addition of a rectangular maple stand-anchored on the soundboard by two small supports -to allow the player to comfortably rest his right-hand little finger. The guitar used for this recording is likely the specimen documented by a photograph from the time, in which Coste is posing with the same Heptacorde model and three other instruments. However, as shown by the comparison between photos  and , the instrument has undergone two further modifications over the years: the replacement of the fingerboard, which was extended beyond the sound hole, and the loss of the ebony plate, which covered the tailpiece. The soundboard is made of two parts of matched spruce of medium and regular grain in the center and a little wider towards the edges. The purfling which adorns the sound hole, and the perimeter edge of the soundboard is made with alternating maple and ebony binding. The ebony fingerboard has twenty brass frets. The bridge, the tailpiece (marked by a Maltese cross) and the stand for resting the little finger, were likely built and mounted on the instrument by Coste himself. Sides and back are in flamed maple. A simple ebony fillet surrounds the perimeter edge of the back. The neck is also maple as is the headstock, which is veneered with maple on the back and ebony on the front. The machine-heads, embedded in the thickness of the headstock, have ivory rollers and buttons. The barring of the soundboard is made up of four transverse struts (two above and one below the sound hole and another under the bridge, which is of uneven height, being lower at the center) and a fifth, above the bridge, which is tilted. This recording highlighted a remarkable balance and tone clarity, along with an excellent depth in the low register and brightness in the treble.
© Giovanni Accornero
Described as “one of the most attractive and engaging artists of the guitar nowadays” (Ricardo Iznaola), Carlo Fierens was born in Finale Ligure, Italy. Active as performer, musicologist, and educator, he has distinguished himself in all these fields. As a performer, he has won numerous prizes in International competitions (most notably the Alirio Diaz competition in Rome, the Indianapolis Matinée Musicale Competition, and the National Prize for the Arts in Italy). He is leading concert activities that have brought him to perform in many countries through Europe, America, and Asia, and in prestigious venues such as the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
His music has also been featured by broadcasting companies such as RAI (National Italian Television), National Public Radio of Armenia, National Polish Radio, and Radio Nacional Argentina. Sandro Cappelletto, music critic of the Italian newspaper “La Stampa”, selected him among the most promising musicians of the new generation, and wrote: “Fierens well captures contrasts, sudden changes of writing, returning a rich sound, now bitter, now sweet, in a phrase and a ‘breath’ of the time of execution already very aware.”
Carlo Fierens started the study of the guitar with his father Guillermo, an acclaimed international concertist. He later studied in Trento with Norma Lutzemberger while completing musicological studies in the University of Pavia. He carried on his education in the USA, achieving an Artist Diploma at the University of Denver with Ricardo Iznaola and Jonathan Leathwood, and at the Jacobs School of Music (Indiana University) under the tutelage of Ernesto Bitetti.
Napoléon Coste (b Amondans (Doubs), 27 June 1805; d Paris, 17 Feb 1883). French guitarist and composer. The son of an officer in the imperial army, Coste, according to tradition, at an early age learnt to play the guitar from his mother. In 1830 he moved to Paris, where his first guitar compositions were published that year. He became a pupil and friend of Fernando Sor – with whom he also appeared in concert – and seems to have been involved in the early-music revival instigated by Fétis. Coste suffered from the general decline in guitar interest in the 1830s and 40s, and although winning second prize in 1856 in a Brussels competition for guitar compositions organized by the Russian nobleman Nikolai Makaroff, for many years he maintained his work as a civil servant. He nevertheless persevered with teaching and composing throughout his life.
Coste composed primarily for guitar. He reissued several of Sor's compositions, including a revised edition (c1851) of his guitar method. Coste was also the first to make transcriptions for ‘modern’ guitar of music for baroque guitar written in tablature: several compositions by Robert de Visée (1686) are included both in the c1851 Méthode and in his later Le livre d'or du guitariste op.52. Coste's writing for guitar was influenced by Sor, but his style shows more Romantic characteristics both harmonically and in formal structure and in the use of descriptive titles and programmatic features. Coste wrote primarily for a guitar with an added seventh string, and is one of the most important guitar composers of the Romantic era.