The Romantic Era, a time of musical transformation and unleashed creativity, witnessed a shift from the structured forms of the Classical Era to a realm of heightened lyricism and intricate harmonies. Yet, beneath this musical evolution, another facet of Romantic music sometimes remains overlooked: the intimate connection Romantic composers had to nature. 

The 19th century marked the decline of the guitar's popularity, with most technical innovations occurring at the turn of the 20th century. The pianoforte reigned as the Romantic composers' instrument of choice. However, in this exploration, we journey back to discover a French composer who defied the era's trends – Napoléon Coste.

Introduction to Napoléon Coste

For classical guitarists, Napoléon Coste (1805 - 1883) is a familiar name, featured prominently in student etudes like those found in the Royal Conservatory Books. Coste's contributions are often associated with these foundational studies, but my personal curiosity led me to explore his more intricate compositions from the 19th century.

Born in the quaint village of Amondans in the Burgundy region of France, Napoléon Coste carried a unique name bestowed upon him by his father, who had a military background. An early illness thwarted his path to a military career, leading him to Valenciennes and, subsequently, Paris, where he would encounter other notable guitar composers of his time.

Napoléon Coste continued the legacy of his teacher, Fernando Sor, elevating guitar virtuosity throughout the 19th century. His works were often inspired by the natural beauty and geography of his youth, notably the Eastern France region where he was born.

Napoléon Coste In Paris

In bustling Paris, the young guitarist Napoléon Coste mingled with some of the greatest classical guitar composers of the time. Notably, his friendship with Fernando Sor, who initially taught him, blossomed into a collaboration in concerts around Paris. However, their partnership was short-lived, as Sor's untimely death in 1839 marked the end of an era.

Much of Coste's compositions were dedicated to his students and acquaintances. Notably, his "Variations on La cachuca" were dedicated to his student Olive Pauilhé, who would later become his wife. Interestingly, Coste also dedicated his "Marche funèbre et rondeau" to Madame Coste, an intriguing choice for a funeral march dedicated to his wife.

Competition And Later Years

Nikolai de Makaroff, a Russian nobleman, played a crucial role in promoting the guitar and organizing a composition contest for the instrument. Although JK Mertz won first prize, Coste's submission came second and remains unique as he was the only living guitarist to collect his winnings.

Following his success in Makaroff's competition, Napoléon Coste returned to Paris to teach, perform, and even take on a desk job to make ends meet. It's possible that, as Bob Kriegel would say, Coste was "playing not to lose" by choosing stability in Paris instead of capitalizing on his contest winnings through European tours.

Coste's concert career met an unfortunate end in 1863 after a fall that resulted in a broken arm.

Some Of Napoléon Coste's Influential Works

Some of my favourite romantic works by Napoléon Coste include:

Grande Sérénade Op. 30

Coste's "Grande Sérénade," a suite of compositions, exhibited a symphonic quality that distinguished it from other guitar works. The chorale within, titled "Choeur des pèlerins," conjures imagery of a procession of faithful singing a hymn.

Marche funèbre et rondeau, Op. 53

One composition that immediately caught my attention was the "Funeral March Op. 53." While the march itself is straightforward, the accompanying Rondeau is a technical masterpiece that astounded me with its brilliance on the guitar.

La source du Lyson, Op. 47

In "La source du Lyson," Coste's composition, a Rondeau villageois captures the essence of a country dance. The perfect fifth notes in the bass evoke the image of villagers joyfully dancing to the music.

The Legacy of Napoléon Coste

Napoléon Coste's music attests to his awareness of the musical trends of his era. One cannot help but wonder if his compositions for ensembles or instruments beyond the classical guitar would have made his name more widely recognized today.

His enduring legacy invites us to explore the rich tapestry of Romantic music and appreciate the composer who was inspired by both nature and folklore.