Lost Between the Lines: BSQ in Chamber Music Magazine

“I have a distinct feeling,” says Jeremy Yudkin, “that this is one of those remarkable breakthroughs in music that come only once every few decades.”

Yudkin is co-director of Boston University’s Center for Beethoven Research, and the breakthrough he speaks of has very much to do with Beethoven. For the past six years, Nicholas Kitchen, first violinist of the Borromeo Quartet, has been making discoveries in Beethoven’s manuscripts, what the Borromeos now call “special markings”: instructions from the composer that have been hiding in plain sight for two hundred years. Kitchen’s discoveries are already enriching the performance of Beethoven’s music and casting a new light on his compositional process—with the potential for much more to come.

Exploration and discovery are nothing new for the Borromeos. They’ve been celebrated as pioneers in the replacement of sheet music with computer screens—and now iPads—to enable performance from full score, rather than individual parts. Avidly embracing other technological tools to help listeners and themselves to a fuller musical experience, they project scores for audiences to watch on-screen, burn live recordings for concertgoers wishing to relive the experience, and email with new music composers for daily score updates. Kitchen’s new insights into Beethoven’s old music are a natural outgrowth of this attitude.

In fact, without the intermediate step of full-score reading, Kitchen might never have reached those insights in the first place.

“All my life,” he says, “I’d been thinking, ‘Gosh, I really wish there was a way to play with the whole score.’”

In 2007, Kitchen saw two pianists—Christopher O’Riley and Meng-chieh Liu—perform from computers. “When I was watching, I was just, like, ‘Well, that’s it, that’s how!’”
Right away, he procured mark-able PDF-reading software and a USB foot pedal for the rapid page turns full-score playing requires. (Kitchen now builds his own custom foot pedals.) Soon enough, he found an opportunity to test out the approach.

“We were playing the Reger Clarinet Quintet with Richard Stolzmann. It was unfamiliar to us, so it became very helpful for me to have the score there,” he says. “I was planning to come back to [just] the part when the concert came around. And then everybody said, ‘You know, it’s awfully helpful having you have the score there.’” Before long, the entire quartet was reading from computer.
Meanwhile, about a year earlier, another crucial development was underway: the launch of the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP), the now ubiquitously-cited online sheet music library. Shortly after his first attempt playing from a computer, Kitchen found a score on IMSLP in Beethoven’s own writing: String Quartet no. 3, Op. 59.

“I didn’t really have a particular plan. But I thought, one rehearsal, ‘why don’t I read off the manuscript today ... just to see what it feels like?’”

What it felt like, at first, “was mostly just seeing where he had crossed something out and tried a different option.” Compared with later finds, Beethoven’s edits and erasures provided few revelations, though they were certainly educational.

Borromeo cellist Yeesun Kim notes that “many times, the places we struggle the most in terms of interpretation tend to be in transitional material. The audience needs to be guided between place ‘A’ and place ‘B,’ but in a way that’s not jarring or awkward. We’ve noticed that, in the manuscript, those were exactly the places that Beethoven would struggle.”

But the biggest reveals were still to come. “At the beginning,” admits Kitchen, “I just didn’t see them. There wasn’t a spot for them, so I didn’t recognize that they were there.”

A breakthrough arrived in July of 2013, while Kitchen was coaching a quartet at the Taos School of Music. It was Beethoven’s Op. 132, another piece for which he’d by then procured a manuscript copy. Looking at Beethoven’s handwriting, the quartet’s cellist wondered: “What is this ffmo?”

It was a Eureka moment. “Her question was like flicking a switch. All of a sudden, I saw all these things. I didn’t know quite what to make of them. But I said to myself, ‘Oh my god, there’s a whole other layer of information we haven’t been paying any attention to!’”

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Sasha Margolis, Chamber Music Magazine
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