Coste, Napoléon: La Source du Lyson, op. 47, for solo guitar. The complete preface by Brian Jeffery (1982)

Napoleon Coste (1805-1883) is a major figure in guitar composition of the mid-nineteenth century. Hans Radke, in his useful and thoughtful article on Coste in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Supplement, called him “the most important guitar virtuoso and composer that France produced in the nineteenth century”. He belonged, like Mertz, to the generation after Sor and Giuliani, and he created a new idiom for his instrument which is quite different from that of his predecessors and in many ways more advanced. He composed 53 opus numbers as well as some works without opus number, and some of his music is worthy of the most serious consideration. One such piece is La Source du Lyson, op. 47.

The only extensive published research on Coste until now remains that of Theodor Rischel, who collected many copies of his music and published an article in Die Gitarre in 1927 entitled “Bibliographische Notizen zu den Gitarre-Werken von Napoleon Coste”. After him, Hans Radke, in his article already cited, was able to situate the composer in the history of the guitar.(1) A selection of his music edited by Jiro Nakano was published by Gendai Guitar, Tokyo, in 1975. Simon Wynberg has begun the publication in facsimile of Coste’s music, and has issued a recording entitled: “Napoleon Coste: Music for Guitar and Oboe”.(2) We hope that the centenary of Coste’s death in 1983 will be a stimulus to modern performers to explore this extensive part of the guitar’s repertory.

The birth of Napoleon Coste on June 27th, 1805

It is a pleasure to be able to give documentary evidence in this edition regarding the correct date of Napoleon Coste’s birth. Thanks to the kind assistance of the civil authorities in the Departement of the Doubs, France, it has been possible to locate the relevant entry in the birth registers of the village of Amondans (Doubs), some twelve miles south of Besançon and eight miles north of the source of the Lison. Until now it had been thought that the composer was born in 1806; it turns out, in fact, that the correct date is 1805. This discovery was made in 1981 by M. François Lassus of the Institut d’Etudes Comtoises et Jurassiennes in Besançon, who searched the relevant archives as a result of the enquiries which I had been pursuing, and who kindly communicated the result to me. I wish to thank M. Lassus, and the civil authorities of the Doubs, for their assistance in this matter.

The registers of Amondans are kept at the Archives Départementales du Doubs. An entry on “L’an treize de la République, le huit messidor”, signed by Jean-François Coste, mayor of Amondans, records the birth to him and to his wife Anne-Pierrette Deneria, of a son, born at noon on that day and christened Claude Antoine Jean George Napoleon.

The birth date of the child, “l’an treize de la République, le huit messidor”, translates into modern usage as June 27th, 1805. Accordingly, the birth date given in many reference works (June 28th, 1806; for example, in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, and the well known works by Zuth, Bone, etc.) must be regarded as incorrect and perhaps due to some early mistake which was then copied from one writer to another.

The entry confirms the often-repeated statement that the composer’s father was an officer in Napoleon’s army. Jean-François Coste, mayor of Amondans and father of the child, described himself in the entry as “ancien capitaine d’infanterie légère”. He was mayor of Amondans from 1803, when he was described as “capitaine pensionné”, until 1807 or 1808. Evidently he had great enthusiasm for the Emperor Napoleon, since he gave the name Napoleon to his son. His military dossier survives in the Archives of the French Army at the Chateau de Vincennes, through whose courtesy it has been possible to examine it. The dossier includes a short official letter from “Napoleon Coste, professeur de musique” in Paris, thus proving that the child born at Amondans was indeed the composer and not merely another person with the same name.

From the dossier it transpires that Jean-François Coste suffered injuries during military service; retired to Amondans to convalesce; and in 1809 rejoined the army. The dossier contains long correspondence concerning the surprising length of the convalescence, and also concerning certain funds which the commune of Amondans later claimed that he had misappropriated during his time as mayor. It shows that Jean-François Coste was born in 1754 at Clairon (Doubs) and his wife Anne-Pierette Deneria in 1766 at Besançon: thus the composer’s family was very firmly rooted in this area of France. There is no known connexion, however (other than the fact that he also came from the same area), with the celebrated Jean-François Coste who was a distinguished medical man and chief doctor to Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

In about 1830, Napoleon Coste went to Paris. He is said to have studied the guitar with Sor, who dedicated to him his last work, the guitar duet Souvenir de Russie, op. 63. The two played in at least one concert together, and on that occasion Fétis described Coste’s playing as follows: “M, Coste marche dignement sur les traces des guitaristes célèbres. Ce qui le distingue, c’est un excellent style, pur, gracieux et nerveux… Il a beaucoup d’analogie avec Sor: il se rapproche de lui comme exécutant et comme compositeur” (Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris, V, 1838, p. 190).

After Sor’s death he remained in Paris, where he died in 1883. Dedications show that he had friends in, perhaps visited, Scandinavia and Holland. He composed steadily for the guitar and his music was published sometimes by commercial Paris publishers, sometimes by himself. He was an all-round musician and composed songs and, especially, chamber music with the oboe.

The source of the Lison

“Qu’on se figure un vallon agreste et sauvage, fermé au levant par une masse de rochers dont les plateaux supérieurs s’élèvent en amphithéâtre, et sont couronnés de bois. Sous ces rochers s’ouvre une caverne, et de cette excavation dans le roc vif, s’élancent des eaux transparentes qui forment une abondante cascade, coupée cent fois par autant d’obstacles, qui l’interrompent dans son cours.” (“Imagine a wild and woody valley, closed off to the east by a mass of rocks whose upper levels form an amphitheatre and are covered in trees. Under these rocks a cavern yawns; and from this excavation in the living rock, transparent waters well up and form an abundant cascade, interrupted a hundred times by the obstacles that meet it in its course.”) Thus Charles Nodier, author of Trilby and one of the principal figures of early Romanticism in France. The charming picture of the source of the Lison on our cover comes from his book Voyages pittoresques et romantiques dans I’ancienne France: Franche-Comté (Paris, 1825).

The river Lison emerges suddenly from a cavern. In fact, it has already risen some miles away, and then flows underground (as the Guide Michelin tells us, the connexion was proven by a grisly accident in 1899, when a poor girl was drowned upstream, and her body reappeared at the Source du Lison). We should imagine a large pool, a water-mill, radiant sunshine, the waterfall, mountains. It is one of the principal beauty spots of the area: namely, the département of the Doubs, some twenty miles south of Besançon. The mill was there from centuries past, and, from the end of the eighteenth century, an establishment for manufacturing scythes and other tools. The buildings can be seen in at least one old photograph, but were demolished at the beginning of the present century.

La Source du Lyson is not the only one of Coste’s compositions to have connexions with his native region, the Doubs. Others are La Vallée d’Ornans, op. 17, and Souvenir du Jura, op. 44. One of his studies, op. 38 no. 8, is dedicated to “Mme Marsoudet, de Salins”; and Salins-les-Bains, although technically over the border from the Doubs, is still close by. The municipal librarian of Salins has been kind enough to tell me that Mme Marsoudet was probably the widow of the poet Jean-Baptiste Marsoudet who died at Salins in 1843, and that Marsoudet is known to have spent some years at Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne, which is the village from which one can walk up to the source of the Lison. Mme Marsoudet (“nee Victorine Oudet”) is also the dedicatee of Souvenir du Jura, op. 44. We can imagine, perhaps, Coste staying with his friends the Marsoudets, probably eating well (Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne is still today especially noted by the Guide Michelin for gastronomy), visiting the beauty spot, and composing this piece.

But fascinating as local history is, La Source du Lyson looks to wider horizons. It is not simply a “picture” in music of a cavern and a waterfall. Rather, its whole purpose is to depict a peasant festivity with its “Rondeau villageois”, and that Rondeau occupies most of the piece, preceded by the introductory Allegro and Andante sostenuto. The bucolic nature of the Rondeau is emphasized by its use of a drone bass. In an early version of the piece (see the note on the text below), Coste entitled it not La Source du Lyson, but rather Fête villageoise. In his article on Coste, Theodor Rischel wrote that the first section imitates the murmuring of the water, the second is a country idyll, and the third is a peasant dance and festival (“Bauerntanz und Fest”), and went on to suggest that the work was composed under the influence of Berlioz’ programme music or Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Certainly we know that Coste admired Berlioz enough to dedicate to him his op. 15, Le Tournoi, so Rischel may be right. However that may be, it is certain that the depiction of a country festivity immediately places the piece in a very venerable French tradition, as much literary as musical and going back to the Middle Ages: the celebration, in art, of country life.

The tune that begins the Rondeau sounds like a folk tune. If it is, then Coste is truly linking up with the traditions of the area, and is perhaps even recording a melody not found elsewhere. But even if the melody was newly composed by him, then at least it is clear that, in such a case, he would be imitating the folk style. Either way, the folk element together with the specific place-name La Source du Lyson, and the tunefulness and happiness of the composition, place the piece firmly in the tradition which I mentioned. Moreover, it has one very specific predecessor in a work of Coste’s friend and colleague Fernando Sor: the latter’s beautiful but seldom-played Fantaisie Villageoise, op. 52.(3) A joyous village dance is in that work too. Distant bells (it seems) are depicted by Sor’s unusual harmonics played deliberately at the sixth fret of the guitar. It is impossible that Coste should not have had Sor’s work in mind when composing La Source du Lyson.

Coste and Gustave Courbet

And there is more than that again. In the mid-nineteenth century, another Frenchman from the Doubs became famous: the painter Gustave Courbet. Born in 1819 in Ornans, he went to Paris and there exhibited in the Salon of 1849, among other pictures, a work entitled Après-dinée à Ornans which achieved instant fame. The name and region of Ornans figure prominently, not only in this picture but also in many other subsequent paintings of his.(4) Now, Coste composed a piece called La Vallée d’Ornans, op. 17, which can be dated in the late 1840s or early 1850s. The dates, and the fact that Ornans was by no means a famous place at that time, are too close to Coste for coincidence. I suggest that there must have existed a connexion of some kind between Coste and Courbet.

Even the source of the Lison was painted at least twice by Courbet.(5) Moreover, Courbet had definite musical interests. His friend Alphonse Promayet, son of the organist at Ornans, played the violin and tbe guitar, and figures in a picture called “Le Guittarero” (sic), in which he is playing the latter instrument, exhibited in the Salon of 1845. (This is the recent identification by the 1977 Paris exhibition catalogue: the old idea that it is a self-portrait of Courbet, which we find repeated for example in Grunfeld, is there rebutted.)(5) His sister Zélie played the guitar, and Courbet made a chalk drawing of her holding one, which is now in the Fogg Museum of Art, Cambridge, Mass. He himself played the violin. He did illustrations for a book of folk-songs edited by his friend Champfleury (Les chansons populaires des Provinces de France, 1860), and on at least one occasion went into the country with another musical friend who collected folk-songs, Pierre Dupont. Yet another friend, Max Buchon, specifically collected folk-songs from Courbet’s and Coste’s own region, and published them (but unfortunately without music) in 1878 as Chants populaires de la Franche-Comté. After Courbet’s triumph in the 1849 Salon, we hear that “La population d’Ornans est si fière de la réussite de l’enfant du pays, qu’au premier retour de Courbet après le Salon, il est accueilli par l’orphéon dirigé par Promayet [the father rather than the son] et que l’on festoie et danse jusqu’à l’aube”.(7)

Documentary evidence which might show an acquaintance between the two men is, however, lacking. Experts on Courbet with whom I have corresponded have found no documentary trace of Coste in the sources relating to the painter. But something more important is there to be seen: a common aesthetic purpose. Courbet is known as the principal painter of the school of realism, breaking away from the romantic painting before him. And Coste was the first guitar composer to break away from the formulas that went before him: to leave the sonatas, the potpourris, the waltzes of the 1830s, and to write pieces that bore a relation to specific places: Soirées d’Auteuil, La Source du Lyson, La Vallée d’Ornans, Le Passage des Alpes. He is in a way a painter in music. His harmonies, too, are quite different from those of anything written before him for the instrument.

La Source du Lyson is just in time for Coste’s centenary in 1983. It links up with the past in its relationship with Sor’s Fantaisie Villageoise, in its use of French folk-song, and in its evocation of French country life; and it breaks new ground in its reference to a specific place, its distinctive harmonies, and its completely new approach to writing for the instrument.

It is a pleasure to thank those who have assisted in the preparation of this edition: M. le Préfet du Doubs; M. W.E. van Wijk; M. Alain Monferrand; M. François Lassus; Matanya Ophee; Philip Candelaria; Mme. Hélène Toussaint; M. J. J. Fernier, Conservateur du Musée Gustave Courbet à Ornans; M. le Maire de Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne; and M. le Conservateur de la Bibliothèque Municipale de Salins-les-Bains.


The text, and suggestions for performance

This edition is based on the following source: La Source du Lyson, Fantaisie pour la Guitare par Nap. Coste, Op: 47. Prix: 10f, A Paris, Katto Editeur, Rue des Sts. Pères, 17. At the head of the title-page: “à son Elève Mademoiselle Marie Daly”. (7 pages; plate-mark “N.C.”; copy: my own collection.) The date is unknown, but may be placed at around 1870.

In the Royal Library, Copenhagen, is a copy of another edition or intended edition of considerable bibliographical interest. The title-page reads as follows: Fête villageoise, Fantaisie pour la Guitare par Nap. Costs. Op: 47. Prix: 10f. Paris. Chez I’Auteur, 50, Rue du Faubg. St. Martin. At the head of the title-page: “a son élève Mademoiselle Marie Daly”. The music is printed from the same plates as the other edition mentioned above. On the title-page of this copy is written: “2 epr”, “pour jeudi avant […] [page cropped]” and “Bon à tirer à 3 […] couverture bleu foncé Catalogue con […] [page 9 cropped]”. On page 6 a superfluous sharp has been crossed out (in this edition, on page 6, line 7, third bar, on the first E), and an A has been corrected to a B (in this edition, in the following bar, sixth note). This copy evidently served as a proof copy, specifically second proof. It is not known whether the piece was ever published in this form. It is, incidentally, most frustrating that this particular copy has been cropped at the right hand edge, because it appears that the manuscript annotations indicated the precise number of copies that were to be printed, information which we do not have from any other source about Coste’s music, or, indeed, about any other nineteenth century guitar music.

On page 2 of the music, line 4, last bar, and line 6, last bar, Coste uses a slur for the special purpose of indicating that several notes are all to be played with the right hand thumb. We have replaced this with today’s more usual marking p for the right hand thumb.

In this piece Coste uses the seventh string only once: to play the low D in the last bar of page 4. Players with six-string guitars can easily put this one note up an octave.

The notation of the harmonics in the original edition is ambiguous, and Coste’s precise intention has to be guessed in each case from the context. In the original in each case is only the notation “harm.”. On page 1 there is not much doubt about the manner of execution; nor on page 6; nor on page 7, top line; nor on page 7, second line, and third line at the end of the first bar. On page 7, third line, at the beginning of the first bar, my solution is a guess. And the harmonics in the last line of page 5 are more of a puzzle, since they could be played either as natural or as artificial harmonics. Coste himself expressed no preference, writing (as we saw) only “harm”. But because of the known strong preference of his friend and predecessor, Sor, for natural harmonics over artificial ones (see the introduction to Sor’s op. 40 in this series), we would prefer to play these harmonics on page 5 as natural ones, and the solution is given on that basis. They can, of course, be played as artificial harmonics; but the historical evidence as we have it at the moment suggests that this is less likely to have been Coste’s intention.


(1) Radke’s article embodies original research. Not so the article “Coste” by Jeffrey Cooper in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, which is largely an unacknowledged word for word translation from Radke’s article, with the addition of a number of misleading statements which will inevitably and unfortunately cause contusion and error for many years to come.

(2) The Guitar Works of Napoleon Coste, ed. Simon Wynberg (Editions Chanterelle, in progress); and Chandos Records, ABR 1031.

(3) Published in Sor: Complete Works for Guitar (Tecla Editions).

(4) For the details about Courbet given below, see: Gustave Courbet, exposition: catalogue par Hélène Toussaint et al. (Paris, 1977).

(5) Two paintings of the source of the Lison, by Courbet, are known to exist: one in the Galerie Paffrath in Dusseldorf, and the other (reproduced on the cover of the Chandos recording) in a private collection in Switzerland. The first was painted in 1864 during a stay with Alfred Bouvet at Salins; and the second also in 1864 during a stay with the poet Max Buchon, also at Salins. (Information kindly supplied by M. J. J. Fernier).

(6) F. Grunfeld, The Art and Times of the Guitar {New York, 1969), p. 243; Gustave Courbet, catalogue, p. 86.

(7) Gustave Courbet, catalogue, p. 96.

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Copyright 2003 by Tecla Editions. Errors and omissions excepted.