Chances are, if you are looking at the modern sheet music version of a piece by Ludwig van Beethoven, you are not seeing the whole story.
That's because Beethoven had an enhanced system of musical notation that was far more detailed than what we see in a typical score today.
"His attention to detail is inspiring, meaningful ad worth paying attention to," said violinist Nicholas Kitchen in a lecture he gave at the 2017 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School called, "From the Hand of Beethoven: a new world of expressive marks from the manuscripts."
Kitchen is a founding member and first violinist of the Borromeo String Quartet and teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music. He began to notice -- and then unravel -- the mystery of Beethoven's system of extended markings when he gained the ability to read directly from Beethoven's manuscripts.
Kitchen always remembered the advise of his teacher Szymon Goldberg, who told him to seek out the full score of any given piece he was playing. But it had always proved rather impractical to actually read, rehearse or perform from those scores. During quartet rehearsals, for example, the thick, heavy score typically sat somewhere in the corner of the room, there to settle arguments or to consult with when things went awry. During performances -- well, could you imagine turning that many pages?
But then several advances in modern technology suddenly made score-reading a lot more do-able. Specifically, the advent of IMLSP allowed everyone access to scores and manuscripts online; while advances in computer software allowed people to read those scores straight from a computer screen, iPad or even smart phone. In 2007, Kitchen designed a homemade USB pedal to help with the frequent page turns involved in reading a full score on the computer. When he could turn the page with a tap of the foot, "that was an 'aha' moment."
Suddenly, he could play entire pieces, reading straight from the score, with no logistical problems. He made pedals for his students and colleagues.
"Our quartet gradually realized that this was such a stimulating way to work," Kitchen said. "When you use the score on a regular basis (instead of just for emergencies), it has a totally different effect on how you communicate ideas. You don't waste any time." Nothing is a surprise -- if there is a gesture across all four instruments, everyone can see it coming. "It starts to be more of a communal effort, where everybody looks at everything. This really was not possible before."
His quartet, the Borromeo String Quartet, now reads straight from their laptops, for both rehearsals and performances.
What's more, at this point nearly everyone can do this. "Getting a little pedal to turn the pages is no longer a big deal," he said. There are several options for pedals, including Airturn, PageFlip Butterfly and PageFlip Cicada. ForScore can help you read your music on your iPad, and Acrobat Professional can create PDFs of your music.
Once everyone was reading the score, Kitchen decided to up the ante: how about reading straight from the composer's manuscript?
IMSLP (which stands for the International Music Score Library Project) has grown to the point where "right now, from your phone, you can download hundreds of Beethoven manuscripts, Schubert manuscripts and more. It's really changed the world," Kitchen said. "I realized I could actually read off of Beethoven's manuscripts," and so he did. And the more he read, the more he noticed a system of specific markings -- applied consistently -- that Beethoven used in the last 26 years of his life.
For example, take Beethoven's "Spring" Sonata for Piano and Violin, Op. 24, No. 5. In the video below, Kitchen performs the exposition (on the 1730 "Goldberg-Baron Vitta" Guarneri del Gesù that he plays) with pianist Evan Solomon, reading straight from the manuscript. Look for subtle details in Beethoven's manuscript score, especially the staccato "dots" that sometimes look more like vertical lines:
What exactly is Kitchen noticing in Beethoven's manuscripts? He sees a system that involves a lot more detail and specificity, in terms of dynamics, articulations and phrasing. In the above example, instead of two types of staccato typically used today, Beethoven used four, marked by long lines, medium lines, short lines or dots. "He was always manipulating the exact nature of staccato," Kitchen said. For example: a staccato-type marking could indicate the bite at the beginning of a note. Another might call for a more subtle kind of "second syllable" articulation like the "th" in "mother." Another might be a simple accent. Below, Kitchen talks about staccato and articulations.
In other repertoire, notably the manuscript for Beethoven's Sonata No. 7, Beethoven used a wider of range of dynamics. Instead of nine dynamic markings (pp, p, mp, mf, poco f, f, ff, fff), Kitchen has observed that Beethoven used a whopping 20 -- 11 for various kinds of "piano" and 9 for various kinds of "forte." He used all the dynamic markings we know, but also sometimes underlined "p", "pp" or "ppp" once, or even twice, and also used "ppmo" and "ffmo" for special emphasis.
Beethoven also had other symbols such as hairpins that were either opened or closed, each with different meanings about the phrase.
Even during Beethoven's lifetime, copyists were glossing over a lot of the details in Beethoven's scores, Kitchen said, and letters that Beethoven wrote about the matter show that he was furious over it. In the years since his death, many publishing companies have simply streamlined those subtleties to fit today's more limited musical language.
When Kitchen first noticed these subtle differences in markings, he wondered if they were perhaps just occasional quirks of writing. But the more he looked, the more he saw consistency in them.
For example, "Beethoven always marks portato as a carefully drawn dot -- he never makes a mistake there," Kitchen said. What's more, "Beethoven abhors wasted effort." Even in the above example of the "Spring" Sonata, Beethoven does not write the same passage twice, when it is to be repeated the same exact way. Furthermore, "why would he bother to put double lines under 'pp' if it means the same thing as a 'pp' with no underlines?"
"These markings are there, and they certainly do seem to have a pattern," Kitchen said. "What ever these markings mean, it's intentional; Beethoven's system is consistent, from his Op. 30 in 1802, through his last works."
Of course, some changes that publishers made were actual corrections that occurred during the editing process after the manuscript. "Even though I find a trove of information in the manuscript that one can get nowhere else, one does have to consult a few editions," Kitchen said. Those corrections are fairly small, compared with the expressive information that one loses in moving away from Beethoven's handwriting, he said, but having an urtext edition such as Henle or Barenreiter on hand can help.
For those who wish to delve deeper into Beethoven's manuscripts, Kitchen recommended looking at the Boston University Center for Beethoven Research website.
You might also like:
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.