About this Recording
8.554354 - COSTE: Guitar Works, Vol. 4
English 

Napoléon Coste (1805-1883)
Guitar Works, Op. 38

Napoléon Caste was France's greatest guitar composer and, together with Mertz, the guitar composer most representative of the Romantic style. He was born in the village of Amondans in the picturesque Loue river valley, immortalized by the painter Gustave Courbet. Caste's father, the village mayor and a former infantry captain, patriotically named his son after the new Emperor (1805 was the year of Ulm and Austerlitz, but also of Trafalgar) and groomed him for a military career. From age six, young Napoléon also began to play guitar, taking his first lessons from his mother. At the age of eleven Caste suffered an extended and serious illness, and the family seems to have abandoned any plans for his military career. The youthful Caste, living in Valenciennes, gained local fame as a performer and teacher of the guitar, and in 1828 even played duets with the visiting Italian virtuoso Luigi Sagrini (they performed Giuliani's Op. 130). In 1830, the year of the July Revolution, Caste moved to Paris to pursue his career. The French capital was not only one of the great cultural centers of the world but also, since the 1820s, home to a guitaromanie, a rage for the guitar, which was attracting performers from throughout western Europe, especially the Italian states and Spain.

Caste, who apparently had little formal training in music, studied theory and composition in Paris and also became the friend and pupil of Fernando Sor (1778-1839), the esteemed Spanish composer and guitarist. One of Caste's concerts in 1838 opened with a duet featuring Sor in his last documented public appearance. The piece they performed may well have been Sor's Souvenir de Russie, op. 63, which was the last piece Sor published in his lifetime and his last numbered work; it was dedicated 'à son ami, N Caste.' Simon Wynberg, in his edition of Caste's works, also cites an extant copy of Sor's Divertissement, op. 62 (1838) which carries a similar, handwritten dedication. Whichever piece they performed, this friendship between the Spanish maestro and the brilliant young Frenchman would prove historically important for both men, for Caste derived considerable prestige from his reputation as Sor's last and greatest pupil; in return, Caste made several significant contributions to Sor's legacy.

Caste's own compositions began to appear in print in the 1840s, and in about 1851 he also published a Complete Method for Guitar by Fernando Sor. This work, in spite of its title, was in fact anew method for the guitar by Caste himself, based on the technical principles he had learned from Sor, and augmented with a number of Sor's studies as well as a few original pieces by Caste. It is not to be confused with Sor's own Method of over a decade earlier, which was not really a 'method' at all in the traditional sense but instead a remarkable discussion of guitar technique, primarily descriptive, with few musical examples. Thus, Caste's work filled a void, since it provided a pedagogical system by which beginners could learn to play in the manner of Sor, in contrast to the 'methods' of Sor's rivals such as Carulli, Carcassi, and Molino. Whether Sor himself authorized this project or would have approved is impossible to know. Nevertheless, the work was successful if one judges by the number of editions which followed; its profound influence on guitar pedagogy is best illustrated by the following anecdote: In 1945, the virtuoso Andrés Segovia published a set of twenty studies by Sor. In his introduction to the work, Segovia praised these pieces for demonstrating the 'right balance between … pedagogical purpose and … natural musical beauty' and recommending them both to the student who wished to develop superior technique, and to the master who wished to maintain it. An instant classic, these twenty 'Segovia studies' thereafter become ubiquitous in guitar pedagogy, and remain so today. But, in an article in Soundboard in 1984, the Norwegian guitarist and musicologist Erik Stenstadvold pointed out that sixteen of the Segovia twenty were among the twenty-four Sor studies Caste had selected for his 1851 Method, and, furthermore, that virtually every digression from Sor's original to be found in Caste's edition, including the occasional editorial error, is duplicated in the Segovia collection.

Nor is this the only way in which modem guitarists who perform Sor's works are indebted to Coste. In the 1870s, when many of Sor's works had gone out of print, Coste published new arrangements of several of the maestro's duets. Bryan Jeffery, in his biography of Sor, notes that it was Coste who was responsible for the most frequently heard modern arrangement of Sor's L’Encouragement, op. 34. This piece had been originally conceived as a duet for master and student, with one part considerably more difficult than the other; in Coste's edition and in the many modern editions based on it, the two guitars share back and forth the more difficult melodic lines, creating an equal duet with greater appeal to concert performers (and audiences).

The present recording brings together Coste's most important pedagogical contributions to the guitar: the miscellaneous pieces he wrote for his edition of the Complete Method for Guitar by Fernando Sor, and the publication, two decades later, of his own classic set of studies, Opus 38. All of these works were composed for a seven-string guitar, that is, a standard guitar with an additional bass tuned to D and occasionally to C, but are playable on a six-string guitar with minor retuning.

The Introduction and Allegretto, in the keys of A minor and A major respectively, were taken from the Method of 1851. The latter is an exercise in thirds and sixths, with chromatic passing tones.

Coste's Twenty-Five Etudes, Op. 38, have never been out of print since they first appeared in around 1873. As much exercises in composition as they are technical studies, these pieces feature a harmonic sophistication unprecedented in guitar music except perhaps in the works of Sor; several of them are uncompromisingly polyphonic, sustaining three and even four moving voices. Nevertheless, Coste disguised his didactic intents with plenty of attractive melodies, sparkling scale passages, and several brilliant cadenzas, creating one of the guitar repertory's finest sets of concert etudes. Most were dedicated to a friend or pupil; No. 9, for example, was dedicated to Soffren Degen, the Dane whose collection of Coste manuscripts has become an invaluable resource to modern scholars studying this composer's music Étude No. 25 was dedicated to Nikolai Makarov, the wealthy Russian nobleman and guitar aficionado who sponsored the Brussels Concours of 1856, a competition to which thirty-one guitar composers submitted sixty-four compositions. (Coste won second prize; the first prize was awarded to Mertz). Étude No. 14 was an Andante extracted from an unpublished Fantaisie symphonique, and dedicated by the composer to his wife.

The remaining pieces on this recording were also first published in the Method of 1851. The Rêverie Nocturne in D is an exercise in harmonics; the Preludio (No. 11) in G is an arpeggio exercise, and the lovely Andante (No. 14) in D features a melody in the bass, polyphony, and a dramatic cadenza. Preludio (No. 12) in G is another piece featuring almost vocal polyphony, while Estudio (No. 13) in G minor sustains a pedal in the inner voice.

Richard Long


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