Napoleon Coste was a gifted guitarist who established himself as a teacher while still a teenager. He moved to Paris, where his brilliant technique placed him among the great guitarists of his generation. His Twenty-five Etudes are one of the guitar repertory's finest set of concert studies, notable for their attractive melodies and brilliant cadenzas.
I know this set of studies well due to them holding a very important place in my technical development – I will come to that later!
In general, however I think that they are less well known and played than some of the other study repertoire from this period. This is a great shame because there are some great little pieces here with excellent technical development material.
The pieces are quite challenging, going from about grade 5 standard up to advanced.
For me, the things that stand out in this collection are fingerboard knowledge and musicianship. I am always talking about knowledge of the notes leading to greater fluency and musical direction, although it can be something that is difficult to achieve if it has not been there from the beginning. These pieces make no compromise in movement around the fingerboard, chord changing and general left hand freedom. They pretty much cover every single note up to the 12th fret, on every string – in one case probably all in one piece!
This may be frustrating at first but really focuses the mind and encourages you to learn in order to achieve the desired results.
The musical content is varied and engaging with some very interesting harmonies, rhythms, textures and colours. The studies particularly highlight harmonic sequences encouraging you to listen to voices to shape the music.
Technically all the basics are covered and developed including arpeggio and scale patterns, slurs, right hand patterns and speed of articulation, movement in thirds, sixths and octaves, alberti accompaniment figures and fully accompanied melodies.
All of the technical movement around the guitar seems to have musical purpose so that you find yourself really developing the link between sound and movement and so ‘feeling’ the momentum and shape under your fingers. I found this particularly satisfying and a big help when I was struggling with some of the technique!
I have not got the space to talk about every piece but will mention some of my highlights.
No.1 gives a taste of what is to come with its simple chord sequence and variation that gives you the chance to listen to, and feel the harmonic movement without having too many notes to think about. No.4 has a lovely, simple melody with chords on almost every beat and no compromise in movement around the fingerboard i.e. some tricky jumps. It is an excellent exercise in playing melodically (that is horizontally) in more than one voice. No.6 has a long line of melody over a lovely triplet accompaniment, using rests in the accompaniment to great effect. No.7 (Associated Board grade 7) has a strong and compelling character highlighting the guitar’s contrapuntal abilities and challenging the player to hear all of the voices.
I love the lower line melody in No.10 (Associated Board grade 8). This piece has great character and requires real control of lines and rhythm and finishes with a contrasting, smoother major section. No.12 (TrinityGuildhall grade 7) creates drama through lots of movement in semiquaver chords, big interval jumps and full harmonies while No.13 is altogether lighter with arpeggio thirds in higher registers using sliding shapes to produce long sequences. No. 15 has a brilliant ‘quirky’ triplet melody built around the chords giving the piece a very individual character. The 3/8 time and repeated semiquaver pedal give No.19 real flow and momentum carrying the melody in thirds through the piece. No. 21 is very difficult because of its constantly moving quaver chords, maintaining three voices for much of the time, and highlighting some unusual harmonies.
My absolute favorite has to be the piece that was a turning point in my studies, opening my eyes to a technique and resulting musicianship that I am still enjoying and developing today! Before playing study No.22 I don’t think that I had ever thought about controlling and stopping bass notes, however this study has a repeating bass rhythm that is as much about rests as it is about notes. Defining this bass line brings a whole different light to the music and is one of the most valuable techniques that I have learnt as well as being enormous fun to play!
I think that this is one set of studies that every dedicated guitarist should own and learn. They teach us as many lessons in musicianship as technique, are very enjoyable to play and highlight the musical abilities of the guitar. Brilliant.