The greatest development in music history

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.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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10 comments on “The greatest development in music history”

  1. Elaine Fine

    People with scores and parts of obscure pieces (and not so obscure pieces) that are in the public domain can also contribute scans of them to the Petrucci Library.

  2. Bruce

    “Ken, IMSLP is a god-send for conductors and musicians alike. I am always impressed with some of the things that I find on there.”

  3. Zoltan

    I love it!

    Even the local music library cannot have all scores (and especially not some of the better editions when it comes to readability or less errors)!
    Whenever I listen to a new work on a record I always first check the IMSLP to see whether it has the score available; it helps me appreciate a work earlier than a usual listening does, where I might wonder off with my thoughts.

  4. Bruce

    Ken, IMSLP is a god-send for conductors and musicians alike. I am always impressed with some of the things that I find on there.

  5. Wanda

    Another nice site like that is

    A little different profile, but also helpful… if nothing else, there is a very nice edition of the Bach works for violin solo up there, one of the best around.

    And if I may humbly suggest my own to anyone who might be reading this post:

    Thanks for humoring my shameless self-promotion on your wall posts, Ken 🙂

  6. Matthew S

    This resource has saved my soul, since I work at a small university where we just don’t buy the really expensive complete works editions (or much of anything else) for the library. That and the free, online NMA.

  7. Elaine Fine

    The Petrucci library is a tremendous resource, but I agree with Wanda that for music from before the 18th century, and for later 20th century and 21st-century music, the Werner Icking Music Archive is the place to go. I use it constantly for Renaissance music and Medieval music, and contributing music to it is a little less complicated than contributing to the Petrucci Library since the WIMA has only one (excellent) administrator.

  8. Pingback: How far we’ve come « The Rambler

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