WHEN WE LOOK BACK into the history of the guitar, we are unable to escape the fact that, with one exception, France has not produced any greatly gifted guitarists. It is true, however, that the French musical public has always been ready to hold out a welcoming hand to any outstanding figure in the guitar world, and for many years Paris was the magnet that attracted the great guitarists of Spain, Italy and other countries.
Miguel Llobet, pupil of Tarrega, lived in Paris for many years and became a favorite among the celebrities of that time. He gathered around him such men as Alfred Cottin, Luigi Mozzani, August Zurfluh, David del Castillo and others of lesser renown, followed later by Emile Pujol, also a Tarrega pupil, and his wife, Matilde Cuerras, who through their concert and teaching activities popularized the guitar. When Andres Segovia arrived there about fifteen years ago he received a tremendous welcome; and he enjoyed the greatest triumph of his career, when he gave a recital before an audience that filled the auditorium of the Paris opera house, the first time that the voice of the guitar ever had been heard within the walls of this venerable institution.
It was during the sixteenth century that the guitar first became known in France, when the names of two guitarists, Adrien le Roy and Jean Antoine Baif, were frequently mentioned in connection with private musicales. Somewhat later we meet the name of Francesco Corbetti, an Italian guitar virtuoso, who gave concerts in his native land and Spain, and who, after his arrival in Paris, became a favorite at the French court. A few years later Corbetti came to London and performed before Charles II of England and subsequently received an appointment in the Queen's household.
In 1686, there were published in Paris some new compositions by Robert de Visee, who had been appointed guitarist to the Court of Louis XIV. This artist enjoyed great popularity for a number of years, both as performer and composer.
Guitarists of a later period were François Campien and Labarre Trille, also Antoine Lemoine, who is best known as the founder of the publishing house of the same name, and J. Meisonnier, who also turned to the publishing of music. The name of the guitarist, Pierre Antoine Gatayes, is closely linked with that of the revolutionary Marat. Music helped to form a bond of friendship between these two men; and it was a few moments after listening to an impromptu guitar recital by his friend Gatayes, that Marat was mortally wounded by the Frenchwoman Charlotte Corday.
It was not, however, until the dawn of the nineteenth century that the people of France began to realize that the guitar was an instrument worthy of serious study. Paris now experienced an influx of the great guitarists and composers, whose names will live forever in guitar history. These were the days when from Italy came Giuliani, Carulli, Carcassi and Castellaci; from Spain, Aguado and Sor. The recitals of these artists created unbounded enthusiasm for the guitar and the publishers were kept busy supplying the ever increasing demand for the music from the pens of these masters.
In this atmosphere grew up the one who was destined to become the only French guitar virtuoso and composer worthy to be ranked with the greatest of this or any other time.
Napoleon Coste was born on June 28, 1806, in a village of the department of Doubs. His father was an officer in the imperial army and expected to train his son for a military career. However when the youth was eleven years old, he contracted a serious illness and after his recovery it was realized that a military career was out of the question. At the age of six the boy had already begun to play guitar, and since the mother was an excellent performer on this instrument, she now encouraged him to study it seriously. In the meantime the family had moved to Valenciennes and in this city Coste, when he was eighteen years old, began to teach the guitar and gave his first public recital. He also appeared as soloist at the concerts of the Philharmonic Society. When, in 1828, the guitar virtuoso, Luigi Sagrini, came to Valenciennes to give several concerts, he was so impressed with the playing of young Coste, that he invited him to take part in his concerts and together these two artists performed the beautiful "Variations Concertantes, Op. 130," a duo for two guitars, by Giuliani.
Two years later we find Coste in Paris, where in a short time he became famous as soloist and teacher. Here he also came into personal contact with the great masters Sor, Aguado, Carulli and Carcassi, and realizing some of his shortcomings he now devoted most of his time to supplement his knowledge of harmony and composition. In 1840, he began to publish some of his works, which however did not bring him great pecuniary success, since at this time the piano began to grow in public favor; this caused the popularity of the guitar to decline.
The music of Coste shows a decided influence of Ferdinand Sor. His compositions, however, reveal a mastery of invention and a thorough knowledge of counterpoint. In the international music contest organized by the Russian nobleman, M. Makaroff in 1856, Coste submitted four compositions and was awarded the second prize among thirty-one entries, the first prize being awarded to the Austrian guitar virtuoso, J. K. Mertz. Coste published about sixty compositions, all characterized by an original charm and vigor. The best known of his works are "Grande Serenade, Op. 30"; "Concert Rondo, Op. 12"; "14 Pieces, Op. 51"; "12 Valses, Op. 41"; "Le Livre d'Or, Op. 52"; "Andante & Minuet, Op. 39"; Valse Favorite, Op. 46"; and "25 Concert Etudes, Op. 38."
Coste died in his native land, February 17, 1883. He was a true artist and the foremost guitar virtuoso and composer of France.