Is it possible, nearly two centuries after Beethovenʼs death, that secrets remain to be discovered about his life and music? Scholars trying to determine everything from his exact birthdate to the subject of Für Elise would answer with a resounding yes. Still, the idea that his manuscripts contain a treasure trove of instructions overlooked all this time is enough to give even the most wishful thinker pause.

Nicholas Kitchen
© Christian Steiner

Which is why Nicholas Kitchen, first violinist of the Borromeo String Quartet, is treading lightly with his readings of the manuscripts, which have the potential to redefine the way Beethovenʼs music is performed. If Kitchen is correct, Beethoven used an idiosyncratic set of 22 expressive markings that were largely dropped or ignored in printed editions of his scores. The marks are minuscule on the page, but their implications are profound, offering new layers of complexity and revitalized dramatic arcs. At the Beare's Premiere Music Festival in Hong Kong in January, audiences will have an opportunity to hear how the markings energize the String Quartet no. 7 in F major.

“I know there will be differences of opinion about this,” Kitchen says. “But after going through score after score after score, Iʼm convinced these markings represent something that has to be dealt with and considered very carefully. They really do seem to be variations on a fabulous and complex imagination of sound.”

“I think Mr Kitchen may be on to something extremely important,” says Jeremy Yudkin, Co-director of the Center for Beethoven Research at Boston University. “The evidence he has compiled and the detail of his observations are overwhelming. I readily admit that I was skeptical at first – as was everyone else I spoke to. But having read his extremely thorough analysis of some of Beethovenʼs complete works in manuscript, I have the distinct feeling that this is one of those remarkable breakthroughs in music that come only once every few decades.”

Beethoven's String Quartet no. 13, second movement “Presto”, and Kitchen's new transcription
© Library of Congress / Nicholas Kitchen
Kitchen caught what he calls “manuscript fever” at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where in the mid-1980s he was studying Beethovenʼs sonatas in a class taught by violinist and conductor Szymon Goldberg. (Kitchen performs on Goldbergʼs Guarneri del Gesù, on long-term loan to him from the Library of Congress.) Goldberg insisted that his students think of Beethoven not only as a brilliant composer, but as an experienced performer who included detailed instructions in his scores showing exactly how he wanted his music played.

“It was one of the most amazing learning experiences I ever had,” Kitchen says. “I realized that if you really start to dig into whatʼs on the page, the amount of information you can gather is stunning.”

In particular, Goldberg pointed out variations in Beethovenʼs use of staccato and pianissimo. So it was natural that, as original manuscripts started to become widely available and Kitchen prepared them for his quartet, he focused on those areas – and noticed some unusual features. Both dots and lines of different lengths seemed to indicate four different types of staccato. The standard nomenclature for pianissimo, the letter “p,” sometimes had cross lines through the stem, or was followed by slashes. Even the spellings seemed to suggest changes in intensity and volume – p growing into “ppmo,” and its opposite, f (forte), morphing into “fo,” “for” and “ffmo.” Swells (parallel lines diverging or converging beneath the stave) also suggested surges in emotional intensity and dynamics.

In all, Kitchen cataloged 22 markings, starting with Opus 30 (the three violin and piano sonatas composed in 1802) and continuing until Beethovenʼs death in 1827. Even if they were no more than personal notations he used while composing, how could they have been missed when printed editions were prepared for performance?

One answer may simply be the chaotic condition of the raw manuscripts. “Theyʼre spectacularly messy,” Kitchen says. “They have these huge scrawls where things were crossed out and rewritten. Sometimes they were so smudged, Beethoven wrote a letter name above a note to be sure it was clear. When you first see them, you think, thereʼs no way I can read this.”

The Borromeo String Quartet: Kristopher Tong, Yeesun Kim, Mai Motobuchi and Nicholas Kitchen
© Richard Bowditch

Kitchen also notes that prior to Beethoven, it was common practise not to include many expressive markings in scores. “Bach is the most overwhelming example,” he says. “Sometimes he does rather eccentric things like triple pianos, but mostly he seems to consciously not put expression marks in the scores. And when you look at Haydn, he left a lot unspecified. It was up to the performer to discover things like inflection and phrasing within the intrinsic qualities of the music.”

At the same time, detailed markings and other forms of instruction were hardly unknown. In his Treatise on the Fundamentals of Violin Playing, Leopold Mozart went on at great length about the proper treatment of unadorned notes, an ethos reflected in his sonʼs scores, which Beethoven would have seen as a member of the court orchestra in Bonn. Itʼs not much of a stretch to imagine him absorbing some of Mozartʼs vocabulary. “Idomeneo sent Beethoven and his young colleagues into a kind of fever,” Kitchen says. “They were so taken with what Mozart had done, they stayed up all night studying the scores.”

Kitchen is also struck by the consistency and precision of Beethovenʼs markings, which he has tracked through detailed studies of more than 50 manuscripts. “Whatever these marks are, in year after year after year of Beethovenʼs work, they are in all the major scores in exactly the same way,” he says. “And they are there in abundance.”

Perhaps most persuasively, the markings fit the music. “A lot of times in quartet rehearsals weʼll say, that spot needs a certain special thing to happen – and lo and behold, itʼs already marked that way,” Kitchen says. “They are deeply, intrinsically lined up with the emotional experience of the piece.”

That wasnʼt apparent at first. When Kitchen added the markings to standard Beethoven scores the quartet was using – in red ink, no less – it had the effect of cluttering rather than clarifying them. So he started again with blank pages, creating clean scores that incorporated the markings, which proved to be a revelation. “It had a really dramatic effect,” Kitchen says. “Now thereʼs another set of things to consider. When we come to two ʻpsʼ with lines through them, how should we play that – with vibrato, or bow speed, or use a more feathered sound? Is it a whispering excitement, or a more electric excitement?”

Those discussions have made a difference in the groupʼs performances. “We are getting enormous responses from audiences,” Kitchen says. “People are reacting to the rich layering of the sound, which is definitely connected to the more complex information we are working with in rehearsals.”

The Borromeo String Quartet
© Premiere Performances Hong Kong

For all his enthusiasm, Kitchen is not a proselytizer – not yet, anyway. He has no ambition or desire to replace the Urtext scores from publishers like Henle or Bärenreiter that have become the modern standard. He refers to his revised scores as “a diplomatic approach” to rethinking the markings. And he works in constant consultation with noted Beethoven scholars like Jeremy Yudkin and Lewis Lockwood, who voices cautious optimism for his findings.

“As far as I can tell, Nick Kitchen has made important contributions to our understanding of Beethovenʼs use of dynamics and other expressive markings in his autograph manuscripts,” says Lockwood, the author of several award-winning books about Beethoven. “Now the broad field of Beethoven scholarship should find the resources to make a comprehensive study of what he has discovered, potentially opening up new perspectives on textual studies in Beethoven, and much more.”

This is also Kitchenʼs hope. “Iʼm very interested to see the way other people will analyze this,” he says. “But right now theyʼre not in a position to start analyzing it, because they havenʼt even seen it.”

Kitchen is working hard to change that. He took on the Herculean task of producing a revised score of the Seventh Symphony, which the New England Conservatory Orchestra performed under the baton of Hugh Wolff in late October. His version of Opus 127 (String Quartet no. 12 in E flat major) is now a fixture in the Borromeo repertoire (it has also been played by the Pacific Quartet Vienna). And he makes occasional presentations, like a lecture he gave about the Missa solemnis during a residency at the Musik-Akademie Basel in Switzerland earlier this year.

Kitchen is especially eager to dive deeper into that piece, where expressive markings are correlated with the text, which may offer further corroboration of his ideas. “The Credo in particular is flooded with markings,” he says. “That could be the Rosetta Stone.”

Click here to find out more about the Borromeo String Quartet upcoming performances at the Beare's Premiere Music Festival in Hong Kong. Aside from Beethoven, at this year's festival the quartet will also perform Mendelssohn's String Octet in E flat major – from the original score, which contains about 100 bars of previously unpublished music as well as Kitchen's original arrangement of Bach's Goldberg Variations for string quartet.

This article was sponsored by the Beare's Premiere Music Festival.