Not long ago, the IMSLP (International Music Score Library Project) had to go offline under legal threat.
For those of you not in the know, the IMSLP is a library of scanned music in the public domain, uploaded by volunteers and available for anyone to download and print for free. Although the IMSLP has been careful to respect copyright law, they have never been popular with publishers, and when the database’s administrator (Edward W. Guo) was sued by a major publisher, he felt that he could not live with the financial risk and turned the website off.
Fortunately, the music and internet community rallied behind the project and a legal team managed to get the project free from under threat. The IMSLP re-emerged in June 2008, as a useful resource for musicians everywhere.
However, recent developments show that the IMSLP’s re-emergence is not simply a happy development for foks who need to download a missing cello part for a Mozart quartet on short notice. It has proven to be an event of historic significance.
In the early days, the materials on the IMSLP were often of mixed, even dubious, value. Quite a few things were scans of dodgy editions, or home-made parts done with limited proof-reading on less-than-first-rate notation software. All nice for a chamber music reading party, but not of much use professionally.
However, in recent months, incredibly important developments have been rocketing forward at great speed. Most remarkably, if one goes to the pages of any of the Beethoven symphonies, you can find not only the scanned copy of the Dover scores, which have been available for a long time, but professional scans of the manuscripts (where available) the first editions of the scores (often the primary source when the manuscript is lost) and the parts. There are multiple editions of the scores, and transcriptions for 2 hands and 4 hands piano.
Most importantly, the scans of the manuscripts come not from some well intentioned grad student, but from the Beethoven Haus, Bonn, itself. This means the IMSLP is suddenly at the forefront of making available essential and invaluable study and research material to musicians anywhere in the world for free at the touch of a button, and they are doing it in collaboration with leading scholarly institutions. If you think some over-zealous editor has been cheating the facts in your expensive Urtext edition, you can now go straight to the source and see for yourself.
There are now more huge numbers of major orchestral works up with complete sets of parts available as well. Conductors no longer need to have deep pockets to have their own sets of edited parts for public domain works.
I encourage Vftp readers to nip over to the IMSLP and have a look at those beautiful Beethoven Symphony scans. Hopefully in a few years, we can expect to find manuscripts of all the great works of the canon. We truly live in amazing times.