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 won 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
This volume contains a series of works that are all related to each other, sometimes in a tenuous – and at times puzzling – way.
We will try to put some order in the chaos of opus numbers and titles, following the findings of Ari van Vliet who is to be credited also with the first complete recording of the most ponderous work in this CD, the Passage des Alpes, op 27, 28, and 40. Let us start by an Opus number not included in this recording: the Caprice, op. 8, dedicated to M. de Montigny. This work was never published during Coste’s life, and it consists of a lively – and technically challenging – caprice in D major, followed by a Polonaise in A major. It is reasonable to date this piece ante 1840, and it works as a base for a number of pieces to follow. Op. 11 is nothing but a reworked op. 8, with the new title Grand Caprice. The piece is more elaborated than its primitive version, notably by the adding of a three-folded introduction which consists of a bright cadenza, an andante maestoso, and a melancholic amoroso with arpeggiated triplets. The Caprice itself is not altered in its form, but the connecting elements are reworked making them more elaborated, and the coda is extended, giving the impression of a more decisive, virtuoso finale. Overall, Op. 11 proves to be a second, more convincing version of Op. 8, therefore chosen over the latter for this recording.
The Polonaise that used to be part of Op. 8 was subsequently re-elaborated (probably in 1840) as Op. 14. This new, stand-alone piece features a lengthy introduction (we shall return on that later), while the main movement, including the long middle section in A major, is not substantially altered. It needs to be noted that the title Deuxième Polonaise hints at the presence of a first piece of the same kind, but that has not been found yet. The Polonaise itself was brought to fame as an art genre by the Polish pianist Fryderyk Chopin, but it had some notable examples in guitar literature also before Coste, especially with Italian virtuoso Mauro Giuliani.
The fact that the Deuxième Polonaise was not published during the composer’s life probably prompted Coste to re-use the lengthy introduction as an opening movement of the Le Passage des Alpes. This work was indeed published between 1862 and 1866 by Richault, according to Simon Wynberg, and it consists of three parts, of which the Marche is also quite the same as another unpublished work, Marche triomphale, op. 26. It is possible, as stated by van Vielt, that the first two parts were sent to the famous competition for guitar composition organized by patron Makaroff in 1856 (which was won by J.K. Mertz), under the name of Feuilles d’Automne (yes, the same title of the collection of waltzes later published as op. 41 and included in this recording). After the competition, and in view of the publication for Richault, Coste added a third part, the Rondo, and changed the title to Le Passage des Alpes, referring to the famous endeavor led by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1800. The lively rondo is the perfect conclusion of the program, bringing an energetic Italian mood after the military hardship, and even a quote from the famous La campanella by Niccolò Paganini.
Finally, the anthology Feuilles d’Automne, bears the same title of the piece sent among others to the Makaroff competition but, as noted by van Vliet (Napoléon Coste: composer and guitarist in the musical life of 19th-century Paris, V Souvenirs), none of the waltzes could possibly be sent to a composition competition, each of them being far too simple for that kind of presentation. Furthermore, there is a degree of uncertainty about the date of composition – it was published only in 1876 “chez l’auteur”. As stated above, it seems now clear that Coste used for the collection a title that was used for the two first parts of what years later became Le Passage des Alpes, never published under that first name. The name takes inspiration from a collection of poems by Victor Hugo which had great resonance in Europe and had inspired other musicians before, notably Franz Liszt. The twelve miniatures, of different length and degree of complexity, are among the finest compositions of this genre by Coste. He probably found great inspiration from his own transcription of sixteen waltzes by J. Strauss (op. 7), although here the form is generally more expanded (all of the waltzes except N. 3 feature a trio), and the musical writing is in general more idiomatic and convincing.
Carlo Fierens © 2022
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.