Born in 1805 in Amondans, in the east of France, as the son of an officer in the Napoleonic army, Coste went to Holland with his father and lived in Delfzijl as a child of 8. In 1813 the French army withdrew from this fortress, passing the Zuiderzee and the Rijn. Later, in 1852, he would dedicate three programmatic compositions from his Souvenirs op. 18, 19 and 20 to these places. He grew up in Valenciennes, in the north of France, and this is the Flanders to which he dedicated his op. 5 in 1835. While studying to become an engineer officer, he fell seriously ill for 15 months, losing his memory for mathematics, leading him to change course and become a musician so late in life.
In December 1828 he settled in Paris as a composer/guitarist and made his career, giving concerts, lessons and composing an oeuvre of 53 opus numbers. He studied harmony and counterpoint probably with his friend Sor. As a member of the Société académique des Enfants d’Apollon he played in many of its monthly concerts, up to 1879, most notably in the annual concert of 1843, where he performed his Le Tournoi op. 15 in the Salle du Conservatoire. He also became a member of the Freemasons lodge and participated in a concert in 1852.
He entered his most important works, op. 28-31, in the Makaroff guitar competition in Brussels in 1856, where he took second prize with Grande Sérénade, a distinction which he did not use to make an international career. He returned to Paris and continued his activities but had to take an administrative job alongside his teaching activities in order to support himself. He married his pupil Louise Olive Pauilhé in 1871, after the German invasion of Paris, and he played many duets with her at home, including his arrangement of Sor’s L’Encouragement, with a delightful result, as he himself writes. He injured his left shoulder in 1874, just as he had earlier in 1863. Nevertheless he continued to give concerts in Paris both times, up to 1880, when he could no longer play due to the extreme cold that winter. In this period he composed his op. 39-53, most of which are self-published. A year later he was struck by a ‘cerebral congestion’. He died on 14 January 1883 and was buried at the Cimetière de Montmartre. His remains were removed in 1986.
Coste=s music displays many characteristics of the Romantic style. Both narrative elements and folklore contribute to its character, and certain biographical events are also expressed in his compositions. Romanticism in Coste=s music is reflected mainly in his complex and intensive harmony. Regarding the music itself, one can use specific musical characteristics to sketch the ways in which Coste=s music resembles that of his three great Romantic contemporaries. His use of altered chords and dissonance can be related to that of Liszt, his harmonic progressions to those of Berlioz, and his harmonic freedom to that of Chopin. His modulations are comparable to those of Schubert. With respect to musical content, the quality of Coste=s guitar music is on par with their piano repertoire. The difference is only one of sociocultural significance.
Until the millennium only the Études op. 38 remained in the guitarists repertoire. Currently however, all of his masterpieces are regularly performed in concert and have been recorded on compact disc, making his works accessible to everyone.
Ari van Vliet: Napoléon Coste: Composer and Guitarist in the Musical Life of 19th-century Paris, Biography, Thematic Catalogue, Compact Disc
Zwolle, Cumuli Foundation, 2015.