Nicholas Kitchen Examines the Extended Expressive Language in Beethoven's Manuscripts

June 20, 2017, 10:43 PM · 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.

Nicholas Kitchen
Nicholas Kitchen. Photo by

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.

Borromeo String Quartet
Borromeo String Quartet. Photo by Richard Bowditch

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.

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June 21, 2017 at 06:38 PM · I enjoyed reading this blog entry and watching the videos. Thanks for providing those links. I looked at the Spring sonata manuscript and noticed something in the first movement that I wasn't aware of before. The violin opening (bar 1) has a one slur over the entire bar while the piano opening (bar) has two slurs, one over the sixteenth notes and one over the entire bar. So is the violin opening meant to played more legato than the piano opening? I wonder if this was intentional. It looks like something might have been erased from the violin part but I'm not sure.

June 21, 2017 at 07:39 PM · Fascinating! It's like going from sepia or black and white to full color!

June 21, 2017 at 11:20 PM · Did Beethoven even play violin? I find it amazing how composers can write with such nuance for instruments they don't even play.

June 22, 2017 at 10:02 AM · Will,

Beethoven did play both violin and viola, and had a quartet of instruments that were given to him by Prince Lichnowsky, at Ignaz Schuppanzigh's suggestion. There are even a few recordings floating around made on some of them, though apparently they, like Mozart's violin, are interesting mostly because of the owner, not the quality of the instrument.

June 22, 2017 at 04:17 PM · This website is a good place to improve both my musical knowledge and my English level. I'm a 15-year-old Chinese student playing the violin for over 10 years, so thanks for providing me with all the information. With all my love!

June 22, 2017 at 04:34 PM · Wendy, you are very welcome. :) I am so happy you can study violin. I recently went to China and learned that it was not always easy to study violin there but things have improved vastly. Best with your studies!

June 22, 2017 at 04:35 PM · Obviously there is a lot to be said for this research and some of the new practicalities. But am I the only one who finds laptops on stage a turn-off?

June 22, 2017 at 06:02 PM · To me, they don't seem like any more of a turn-off than sheet music...Although I have to say that my eyeballs generally prefer reading words off paper to reading from a screen! I'm sure that improvements to that technology are probably in the offing...

June 24, 2017 at 06:00 PM · I found the surprising detail fascinating , and started to look for small changes in composers outside of Beethoven, although he was foremost in my mind. I am a high school conductor and teacher of those through high school and Emeritus Director of the Duke String School. It changed my view and my detail study of so many things.

June 26, 2017 at 09:41 AM · Fascinating article, thanks. I had no idea that 'modern' manuscripts didn't follow the exact markings of Beethoven's original scores. Are there any modern scores that have his original, more nuanced markings and subtlety of dynamics? I don't think I could read Beethoven's messy scrawl like Nicholas does. I wish he were my teacher...that was a great session on staccato.

June 27, 2017 at 02:54 PM · Great article, Laurie! I particularly loved the part about "singing" the articulation. I've done that in the past, but wondered if it was cheating! Great to hear a violinist of his calibre advocating for that approach.

June 28, 2017 at 12:18 AM · Very interesting. I recall my father telling me that he saw Goldberg play the Beethoven VC after studying the manuscript and that the performance was truly eye-opening. I am not surprised. The urtext of that piece is quite different in terms of the bowing from most of the edited editions, which tend to have many more slurred notes than Beethoven envisioned.

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