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THIRD EAR

What, precisely, did Beethoven tell his future performers?

Borromeo String Quartet will perform all of Beethoven's string quartets over six concerts at Jordan Hall.
Borromeo String Quartet will perform all of Beethoven's string quartets over six concerts at Jordan Hall.Andrew Hurlbut

In music, typically the scholars worry about the autograph sources while performers focus on bringing them to life. Or as the pianist and polymath Charles Rosen once put it: “musicology is for musicians what ornithology is to the birds.”

By that description, Nicholas Kitchen, first violinist of the Borromeo String Quartet, is an anomaly, the rarest of birds. And it’s precisely his performer’s view of the terrain of musicologists that may have just unlocked an extraordinary discovery — one that, if borne out, could influence the approach that musicians take to the entire body of Beethoven String Quartets.

By any measure, the composer’s 16 quartets are of course a pinnacle of Western art music, and before meeting with Kitchen to hear about his recent finds, I was already anticipating that the Borromeo’s six-performance traversal of the full quartet cycle, free to the public and beginning on March 8 in Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory (where the Borromeo is the quartet-in-residence), would be a highlight of the local celebrations of Beethoven’s 250th birthday this year.

But it turns out Kitchen has a lot more to share than the music itself. We met on a recent morning in a local cafe, where I found him with his laptop open, his coffee getting cold, and his face beaming. On his screen, opened across dozens of tabs, were scans of the autograph manuscripts of various Beethoven quartets, gathered by Kitchen from archives around the world.

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A page from the manuscript of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130, in the composer's own hand. The first measure contains four pianissimos marked with two lines each.
A page from the manuscript of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130, in the composer's own hand. The first measure contains four pianissimos marked with two lines each.Courtesy of the Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress

At first glance each manuscript, written in the composer’s hand, is a charismatically inscrutable whirlwind of notes, crossed out figures, and revisions that reflect the multiple layers of Beethoven’s creative process. For this very reason the manuscripts are invaluable to scholars. Most performers, on the other hand, have little occasion to even see them, let alone use them in their work. When it comes to playing the actual quartets, musicians almost always reach for one of several modern printed editions, which are standardized, easy to read, and easy to obtain.

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So it was for Kitchen and the Borromeo, who for years performed the works using the popular Henle editions. Then around 2009, Kitchen began looking through some scans of the autograph scores that had turned up online. He found them generally helpful for understanding Beethoven’s creative decision-making, since you can clearly see when the composer reversed course and tried out a different solution to a musical problem. Sometimes Kitchen brought the scores in to show students. One day, while looking at a manuscript of Beethoven’s celebrated Quartet in A minor (Op. 132), a cello student asked Kitchen a seemingly simple question. Beethoven had clearly written beneath the staff the letters “FFMO.” What, dear teacher, might that mean?

Kitchen had to confess he was stumped. He had never noticed this particular marking, but the question inspired him to focus more closely on Beethoven’s hand-scribbled expressive markings across the entire score — and then, all of a sudden, the entire document opened up. “It felt like a deck of cards being flipped face up,” he told me. “Suddenly I saw this enormous range of dynamic markings, and it became clear to me that they were everywhere.”

These markings provide instructions to performers, mostly regarding dynamics and articulation. Every printed edition reproduces most of them, but in a homogenized format. As Kitchen quickly realized, the manuscripts themselves contained far more variations than he had ever seen before. Sometimes, for instance, Beethoven indicated pianissimo with a normal “pp.” But sometimes he used a single line through the stem of each “p.” Sometimes each “p” had two lines through it. And sometimes the instruction was written oddly as “ppmo.” A similar range of gradations existed for forte dynamics. Yet this variety of instructions, all these years, had been completely invisible to performers because they had been standardized out of existence for the published scores.

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Since that moment, Kitchen says, he’s been consumed by “manuscript fever,” poring over as many autograph scores as he can find, compiling examples, charting results. Far from a random slip of the pen in one or two works, he has determined that Beethoven used this expanded expressive shorthand consistently in almost all of his music between 1802 and 1827. As a way of shedding light on their specific meanings, Kitchen started mapping out precisely where and when the different markings appeared. He found that Beethoven saved certain markers (such as “ppmo” and “ffmo”) for extremely specific spots in the harmonic and expressive architecture of an individual movement. This helped convince Kitchen these were anything but arbitrary. Ultimately, he has come to think of them as not representing gradations in volume per se, but in expressive intensity. They are precise guides, he says, to the emotional landscape of the piece.

In total, according to his tally, the manuscripts consistently utilize 22 different dynamic marks, which in conventional published editions have been standardized down to nine marks. He also found similar variability in articulation markings, indicating how a player should attack an individual note. In that case, four different ways of indicating staccato — a short stroke — had been reduced in printed scores to a single standardized mark. Kitchen also found precedents for some of these distinctions in the manuscripts of other composers, from C.P.E. Bach to Haydn. It therefore seemed possible that Beethoven had built on systems used by previous composers and taken them, as was his way, to unprecedented heights of complexity and meaning.

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Is this all the musical equivalent of insider baseball? Not in the least. As with the proverbial example of the Inuit language possessing dozens of different words for what English-speakers call simply “snow,” Beethoven, in this telling, was utilizing a far more precise vocabulary than previously realized. It might be equivalent to learning that the published texts of Shakespeare’s plays have left out reams of information from the Bard about how his own works should be performed. To me these revelations, if proven, seem seismic. But what did the specialists think? I reached out to Beethoven scholar Jeremy Yudkin and asked for his opinion on Kitchen’s findings. He called the violinist’s work “astounding.”

“I think Mr. Kitchen may be onto something extremely important,” Yudkin, co-director of Boston University’s Center for Beethoven Research, wrote in an e-mail. “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 most recent research and his extremely thorough analysis of some of Beethoven’s complete works in manuscript, I find myself convinced… I think it is very possible that this is one of those remarkable breakthroughs in music that come only once every few decades.”

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Questions of course remain about why a larger portion of the markings never made it into the earliest published editions. Kitchen has found a letter in which Beethoven complains about exactly this problem. It could be that music publishing in that era simply could not accommodate this level of detail and notional innovation. It is indeed poignant that, while Beethoven must surely have realized that his instructions would not be translated, he persisted in using these markings all the way until the end. In fact, Kitchen says, the late music is precisely where the system is used with the most completeness, richness, and depth. One thinks of Beethoven’s famous quip about his Op. 59 Quartets: “They are not for you but for a later age.”

Having made his discoveries, Kitchen now feels he has a duty to share what he’s learned. In addition to publishing his research in formal academic contexts, he will begin speaking about these discoveries in public presentations (at Tanglewood on July 18, and at the Library of Congress on Dec. 5). The quartet has begun recording these works. He also has started preparing new printed editions of the string quartets that will reproduce, in a manner much more suited to performance, the full range of Beethoven’s expressive markings. Other players, he says, may decide to interpret the meaning of these markings differently than he has. But at least now they will know the markings exist, and can from there make their own interpretive choices. As for his group’s own performances, don’t expect the Borromeo’s new Beethoven to sound radically transformed. But, Kitchen says, the process of preparing the music has been a much richer one as he and his colleagues engage more deeply with Beethoven’s original vision.

Back in the cafe, the hour has grown late and Kitchen closes his laptop and reaches for his violin. It was time to rehearse for Sunday’s program. But before he slipped off, I asked him about the bigger picture. Bracketing all these score-based discoveries, what did it mean as a veteran quartet player of more than three decades to be taking on, once more, a full traversal of the Beethoven cycle? He replied without hesitation.

“Even though we are thrilled to share with people what actually does seem to be a new and exciting layer of information,” he said, “if all of these marks were taken away and all you had were the notes themselves, a Beethoven cycle would still be a life-changing musical experience. The fundamental structure of what Beethoven offers is a vessel that is so flexible and so rich in its resonance with what human beings feel and aspire to — that every time we listen to it, the music becomes something new. All of us can only live so long, but what could be a greater privilege than to let Beethoven lead us into this discovery, really, of ourselves — with this gift that he gave all of us through this music?”

The Borromeo String Quartet performs the first of six all-Beethoven programs on March 8 at NEC’s Jordan Hall. Free but tickets required. www.necmusic.edu


Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.