Napoléon Coste was born in the French village of Amondans on the 27th of June 1805 as the first and only son of Jean François Coste, an officer in the Napoleontic army, mayor of the village at the time. His mother, Anne Pierrette Denéria, was the second wife of Jean François, who had two daughters from his first marriage and a daughter Cathérine, the older sister of Napoléon Coste. Soon the family moved to Ornans, a greater village, close to Amondans, in the Jura. When his father reentered the army and was offered a post in the North in 1812, the little Napoléon went with him to Langeoog, a 'waddeneiland' near the Eems between Holland and Germany. An evacuation report states that, as a boy of only 8 years, armed with a saddle pistol, he stood guard with the soldiers under the attack of the English. Later he stayed in Delfzijl until the French army, and so his father, had to leave the fortress as a result of the defeat of Napoléon Bonaparte at Leipzig. Then he must have passed the Zuiderzee, the large and dangerous inner sea of Holland.
He was united with his family and lived in Valenciennes in the North of France, where he grew up. The story goes that he fell seriously ill and could not fulfil the ambition his father had for him in a military career. Instead, he turned to music and learned to play the guitar, first by his mother. At the age of 18 he gave his first concerts in Valenciennes, one in a duet with the travelling virtuoso Sagrini in the Gran Variazioni Concertanti opus 35 that Giuliani wrote in cooperation with Hummel. Coste also must have played the piano, as he was a teacher of music in Valenciennes and later composed several works for the instrument.
In 1828/29 he moved to Paris to start a career as a guitarist/composer. There he met other guitarists as Carulli, Carcassi, Aguado and Sor, with whom he probably studied counterpoint and harmony. If not so, he might have studied these skills with a professor of the conservatoire. In 1851 he became a member, and even the secretary in 1870, of the freemasons loge 'Les Frères Unis Inséparables' in which many musicians and composers participated, as Klosé, Meyerbeer, Panseron and Triébert did.
Paris was on the threshhold of important developments in romantic music with Berlioz, Chopin, Liszt, and Coste fulfilled his role in the heritage of Sor, composing an important oeuvre for the guitar. He took music for guitar a step further into romanticism in Paris, as did Mertz in Vienna and Zani de Ferranti in Brussels. He made a succesful career as a guitarist, performing in many concerts, despite the declining interest for the instrument in recitals in favour of the piano. This ended with the injury of his left arm in 1863 and again in 1874. By then he already had published a voluminous oeuvre of compositions for guitar solo, but nevertheless he had to accept a post as administrator at the Paris community in 1855 for a living, from which he was pensioned in 1875.
Around 1850 the Paris luthier Lacôte developed a heptacord guitar, as said under instruction of Coste, with the seventh string in D as bourdon aside the fingerboard. Several of the guitar works of Coste cannot be played otherwise than on such an instrument.
The Russian nobleman Makaroff, who travelled through Europe visiting important guitarists/composers, organised a guitar construction and composition contest in 1856 that took place in Brussels, a quite neutral place at the time of the Krim war. Coste and Mertz entered this contest with many compositions, and Mertz won the first prize with his concertino, perhaps out of pity for his widow, as he himself died just before the final date. Coste went to Brussels, played his compositions in the apartment of Makaroff at the Houtmarkt for the jury that consisted of professors of the conservatoire and achieved the second prize for his Sérénade opus 30. On the occasion of this contest he composed his most important works as Le Passage des Alpes opus 27, 28 & 40, Fantaisie Symphonique opus 28b, La Chasse des Sylphes opus 29 and Le Départ opus 31.
In 1871, two weeks after the capitulation of Paris in the war against the Pruisian army that destroyed most of the city, he married his much younger pupil Louise Olive Pauilhé; he 65 years old and she 46.
After having published most of his works with publishers as Richault, Challiot and Schonenberger, from 1876 on he published his own works from opus 43 on to 53. In Europe he had many admirers with whom he had a regular correspondence. One was Degen from Denmark who made the first known picture of Coste, probably on the occasion of his visit to Paris in 1855. The other, most known picture was taken many years later by the commercial active photographer Disdéri in Paris. The fame of Coste even went to Germany where he became honory member of the Club des Guitaristes de Leipzig, to which he dedicated his famous Livre d'Or du Guitariste opus 51. In 1883 Coste fell ill and died the 14th of January, the same day as Gustave Doré.
Two of his guitars are now in the museum of Cité de la Musique in Paris. As a composer he left some 53 opus numbers, mostly works for guitar solo, but also transcriptions of Schubert songs, guitar duets, works for hobo and guitar in many genres. His importance for the romantic guitar cannot be underestimated, as he is the key figure in the transition from the classical guitar towards romanticism. At present his compositions appear more and more in recitals and in recordings all over the world.
The set op seven souvenirs, composed around 1852, is a journey through the memories of Coste, the landscapes of his childhood, the sounds in his youth and the romance of his adolescence.
It first leads to Ornans, the village of his childhood in the Jura, in the East of France with grassy fields, corn, woods, rivers and waterfalls, but also rough highlands, where mountaineers travel in their special outfit and finally vanish in the distance.
The river Rhine is mainly the border between France, with its elegant waltzes and Germany, which the French never liked because of its assumed rudeness and lack of refinement. But the flow of the sparkling water is reflected on both sides of the river and in both parts of the composition.
In Holland the people must have been kind to the young Coste, as Delfzil breathes a gentle athmosphere. It is a waltz with sad and happy memories, the composition varies these feelings in quiet and violent movements, sometimes even imitating the abrupt speech of Groningen.
The Zuyderzée was very impressive to the young boy. In the music one can hear the movement of the waves, an tumultuous storm coming up, even lightning and thunder. Then a fine waltz shows folkloristic features, people dancing and an enthousiastic ending.
Les Cloches is clearly imitating the carillons of Flanders, after the polyphonic introduction of the Fugue, the only one Coste composed. The Rondeau is very emblematic with the returning sounds of chimes, alternating warming melodies and fast movements of chords.
Meulan is a small city near Paris where, according to this music, Coste might have met his wife, spent happy times with her. The piece starts with a amorous and charming melody, moves to a striking moment of falling in love, and then turns to a gripping waltz, ending in enthusiastic happiness.
Finally, in Les Soirées d'Auteuil, also a village close to Paris, a Sérénade brings a tribute to loving memories and a Scherzo refers to merry moments Coste must have had, waltzing with his wife.
The Souvenirs show the great musical abilities of Coste as a composer in an intense and sensible musical style, romanticism referring to nature, cities, sentiments, folklore and, why not, love.
The piece was composed for the Makaroff guitar composition concours in 1856 and part of the five pieces that Napoléon Coste sent in this competition. It was not published at the time. Until now it was not recorded also, probably because of the intensive use of the seventh string in D, adjacent to the sixth in E for which a seven string guitar is needed. Here, finally, is the first recording of this important work of Coste. The title might refer to the Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz 36 years earlier, Coste was an admirer of the composer, but the programmatic reference of the music is not very clear. The five parts are episodic as a compilation and in themselves. The moods differ many times from strong rhythmic motives and themes to lovely lyrical melodies, always set in rich harmony and polyphonic passages. The beautiful Andante with its very romantic and lyrical melody also appears in the Etudes as nr 14, which is dedicated to his wife. The final Scherzo shows interesting guitaristic and musical inventions, with humour in a during movement of a waltz, the personal preference of Coste.
Le Passage des Alpes
The music opens in a Maestoso that, by the athmosphere and even the tempo, pictures the journey through the Alps of the great Napoléon Bonaparte, admired by Coste. Another possibility for the programme of the music is the passage over the Alps of Hannibal, as written in the book of Jean André de Luc, but the event of Napoléon himself in 1800 is closer to the truth. The many hardships the famous traveller experiences pass in revue in this programmatic piece in the many gradations of musical passages, rhythms, spherical sketches, abrupt changes and lyrical melodies. The Marche refers to the heroïc intentions of Napoléon, with trumpet sounds, echoes in the valleys, marching troups and the local people looking at the passing army in adoration. Then the arrival in Italy follows, a Rondo, even with references to the most famous Italian musician, Paganini of course, in his violin concerto, and also there is a trio with folk music elements. The composition ends in a majestic tarantella movement, with both classic and romantic references to the greatness of an honoured monarch from Corsica.
Ari van Vliet is a guitarist and a musicologist. He studied the guitar with Antonio Pereira Arias at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague. In the tradition of Segovia he developed a lyrical style of playing. He gives concerts, lectures and lessons in music and recitals with classical, Spanish and Latin-American repertoire. His interpretation of guitar music can be heard on his recital cd's Iberia, Guitar Collection, Collector's Item, Latin Recital and Atahualpa Yupanqui Instrumental. He graduated in musicology at the University of Utrecht on the subject 'Guitar music in the second half of the 17th century: the Italian, Spanish and French style'. Currently he is writing the biography of Napoléon Coste that includes a thematic catalogue. As musical practice always comes first, he studied the most important works of Coste as a performer and now presents this programme in a recital played on a Kresse copy of the Lacôte seven string guitar that was developed under instruction of Coste.
To experience the way Coste himself played, Ari van Vliet searched for a copy of this guitar. Unfortunately, the instrument was in the Cité de la Musique in Paris and there were no construction drawings available. Luckily Bernard Kresse in Köln had obtained another Lacôte heptachord, and he ordered a copy of the instrument.in 2010. To come even closer to the way Coste may have played and how his music could have sounded, the next step was to turn to gut-strings that were in use at the time. These strings are tuned in the 19th century pitch of a= = 435 Hz. The playing technique and sound differs from that of the modern guitar, but nevertheless has its own quality and character. The strings are somewhat less direct in producing the tone after the stroke, which influences the way of phrasing. The sound acoustics are deeper, rounder and terser. All this means the development of different aesthetics in the way of the production of the sound and in the interpretation of the music. The experienced listener and player can then leave modern aesthetics of sound to give way to this interpretation of the 19th century romantic guitar music of Napoléon Coste.