About this Recording
8.554353 - COSTE: Guitar Works, Vol. 3
English 

Napoléon Coste (1805-1883)
Guitar Works Opp. 14-19

Napoléon Coste was France's greatest guitar composer, and, together with Mertz, the guitar composer most representative of the Romantic style. Born in the village of Amondans in western France, Coste was named after the new Emperor and groomed for a military career by his father, the village mayor and a former infantry captain. From the age of six, young Napoléon also began to play guitar, taking his first lessons from his mother. At the age of eleven, Coste suffered an extended illness, and the plans for his military career were abandoned. Instead, he won local fame as a performer and teacher of the guitar, and in 1830, the year of the July Revolution, he moved to Paris to pursue a musical career. The French capital, one of the great cultural centres of the era, had also become home to the guitaromanie, a rage for the guitar. Coste, who had received little formal training in music, was able to study theory and composition in Paris and also to he friend the likes of Fernando Sor (1778-1839), the esteemed Spanish composer and guitarist.

The compositions presented on this recording probably date to the late 1830s and 1840s, although several of them survive only in manuscripts of a later date. During those years the guitar virtuosos of the previous generation, including Sor himself, were dying or retiring, and the musical era of Chopin, Berlioz, and Liszt had begun. Coste, having mastered the technical virtuosity of his predecessors, was left to forge a brilliant new guitar repertory reflecting the musical innovations and sensibilities of the age. The pieces presented here–popular dances and airs of the period, two homages to the opera composer Bellini, and an original work evoking the medieval tournament–reveal a composer immersed in the intellectual and artistic mainstream of Paris during the July Monarchy.

The Deuxième polonaise, Op. 14 was unpublished in Coste's lifetime, and survives in several manuscripts dating from the 1850s; although it is entitled "Second Polonaise," no predecessor has been discovered. Coste's version of this popular dance lies, in spirit, somewhere between the concert polonaises en rondeau by the likes of Weber and Mayseder (not to mention the guitarist Mauro Giuliani), and the "art" polonaises of Chopin. A florid introduction in the key of E minor (Coste used the same introduction later, in his Op. 27) leads to the lively dance in E major; an extended middle section in A major functions as an elaborate Trio, and is followed by a recapitulation of the theme and a bravura ending.

The poets of the Romantic era loved all things medieval; they portrayed the Middle Ages as a time of simplicity, social order, faith, and chivalry, in contrast with their own age of political revolution, cynicism, and technological transformation. Coste selected a quintessentially Romantic subject for his Le tournoi: fantaisie chevaleresque, Op. 15 (chivalrous fantasy) the sort of knightly tournament which had been celebrated in the historical novels of the late Sir Walter Scott. The dedicatee of the piece was none other than Hector Berlioz, whose musical and literary careers were both catching fire in the early 1840s. Berlioz was himself a guitarist; in fact, the guitar and flute were the only instruments over which he could claim any degree of mastery, and it has been speculated that the orchestral harmonies of even his largest-scale works may have owed something to his guitar. Whether Coste's dedication reflects a friendship between the two men or an attempt by the composer to catch the attention of the celebrated critic of the Revue et gazette musicale is not certain. In any case, the original edition of the music also informs us that the piece was performed by the composer at the Paris Conservatory.

Coste's Fantaisie sur deux motifs de Norma, Op. 16, was published in Paris 1843, about seven years after the death of Vincenzo Bellini, the most Romantic of the bel canto composers. Norma, arguably Bellini's finest work, had been first performed in Milan in 1831; two years later Bellini arrived in Paris, where he knew Chopin and Rossini and wrote I puritani, just prior to his sudden fatal illness. The French Romantics of the 1830s had little affection for the music of Rossini and Donizetti, but the lyricism and atmosphere of Bellini was more to their liking. In his Mémoires, Berlioz recalled attending a performance of I Montecchi ed i Capuletti at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence. His initial outrage at the quality of the production–"All (the principal characters) except Juliet (who was played by a large fat woman) and Romeo (by a small thin one), sang out of tune"–melted during a particularly moving aria, after which he "was completely carried away and applauded frantically." Coste's affection for Bellini, exhibited here, is but further evidence that the guitarist was in the mainstream of the French Romanticism of his age. A short introduction in A minor (Allegro assai) by Coste is followed by an arrangement in A major (Moderato) of Bellini's aria "Ah! bello a me ritorna," upon which Coste rhapsodizes, briefly quoting "Guerra, Guerra." The second half of the piece parallels the first; Coste constructs a bridge in A minor (Andante) to Bellini's "Si, fino all'ore" (Allegretto) which he sets as a galop and to which he adds a cadenza and an energetic coda.

In the 1830s the composer and musicologist François-Joseph Fétis sponsored a series of "Concerts historiques" to revive the music of earlier centuries. A tune entitled La romanesca, first performed in the historic concert of November, 1832, was acclaimed for its simple but haunting melody and was repeated in subsequent concerts for several years. Coste's guitar solo La romanesca, Op.19b, appears to be a transcription of this piece, and was issued by the Parisian publisher Richault at the peak of its popularity. A manuscript of the same music, arranged for violin and guitar by Fernando Sor and dated 1835, has also survived; Sor had been one of the celebrity participants in several of the Concerts historiques (playing a lute!), and was also Coste's teacher and friend, so either could have provided the other with the score. No historical source for the piece has been located and neither the melody nor the chord progression conforms to the traditional sixteenth century sequence called "Romanesca," so it is possible that the music, along with some of the other works represented as historical curiosities, was composed by Fétis himself or by one of his friends. On the other hand, Coste himself was interested in early music and was one of the first "modern" guitarists to transcribe Baroque guitar music, that of Robert de Visée, from the old tablatures.

Andante et Allegro survives in a single manuscript, probably autograph, filled with alterations and corrections. That this is stylistically an early work has been observed by the guitarist and musicologist Simon Wynberg, who edited the modern edition of Coste's works for Editions Chanterelle (and whose research was invaluable to me in assembling these notes). These two movements, in C and A minor respectively, recall in particular the compositions of Coste's friend and teacher Fernando Sor.

There are several extant manuscript versions of Coste's Introduction et variations sur un motif de Rossini, none autograph; the date April 15, 1844, on one copy establishes only that the piece was composed some time before that date. Because the manuscripts were not in Coste's hand, the composer also cannot be blamed for the misattribution of the theme, which is not by Rossini at all, but is in fact the aria "Tu vedrai la sventurata" from Il pirata (1827) by Bellini. The popularity of this melody is demonstrated by the many sets of variations which were based upon it. In addition to those for piano (for example, by Kalkbrenner), violin (notably by Vieuxtemps), and for harp (by Marcucci), the graceful theme held a special attraction for guitarists, inspiring Friedrich Spina (Op. 31), both Mauro Giuliani (WoO, G-10) and his daughter Emilia (Op. 2), Pietro Pettoletti (Op. 26), and a late work for flute and guitar by Ferdinando Carulli (Op. 337). Coste's treatment is in the tradition of the Italian guitar virtuosi, with brilliant embellishments and a flamboyant conclusion.

The Deux Quadrilles presented here survive in manuscript form, and bear some resemblance to Coste's Deux Quadrilles de contredanses…, op. 3 (ca. 1831). English country dances (contredanses) had become a rage in France during the Ancien Régime; by the nineteenth century a "quadrille" (originally the name given to a square or group of dancers) had itself become a dance, consisting of five consecutive figures (contredanse): le pantalon, l'été, la poule, la trénis, and a finale. Paris-based guitarists such as Ferdinando Carulli had written literally dozens of contredanses quadrillées for guitar solo or with other instruments in the previous decades. Coste has given almost all the dances their traditional labels, but the fourth dance of the second quadrille is labelled "Pastourelle, " and both finales are labelled" Final chassé croisé été."

Richard Long


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