I'll have you know that the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) is a Canadian umbrella organisation for the Petrucci Music Library, a collaborative repository of public domain and CC-licensed music scores. "This is a wonderful idea, O handsome one," I hear you say, "and I shall be only too pleased to investigate further when the project has come to fruition. In the meantime, I'm off to explore the differences between crunk, hyphy, moob, and chopped and screwed hip-hop. Peace."
*chuckles to self*
Not so fast, my jewellery-encrusted friend. The Petrucci Music Library has been up and running for over three years, and can now offer the small matter of 17,421 works and 37,157 scores, all of which are searchable by composer name, time period, genre or instrumentation. This means, and I'm sure you're ahead of me here, that musicians now have access to scores (downloadable as PDF files) from just about any century in the Western calendar that has four figures in it. If you ever fancied exploring the Renaissance repertoire, now's your chance. Tallis's Spem in Alium, Bach cantatas, Haydn string quartets, obscure atonal claptrap* from obscure 20th century composers - they're all here, many of them with the separate instrument parts as well as the full score.
Three concerns strike you. Is this Petrucci Library thing legal? Is it useful? Won't it harm music publishers? It's time for some small print:
Remember, it's your responsibilty to check a score (ISMLP has assigned a helpful copyright review code to each) to see whether it is public domain in your country, be it in Europe or the rest of the world. Fortunately, the Petrucci Music Library is actually a huge Wiki-page (as in Wikipedia) so it's easy to find the relevant information. Most major 20th composers are still under copyright; the only stuff you'll find from that era are scores released under a CC licence. Don't expect to see Shostakovich or Bernstein. The IMSLP forums are happy to help with any inquiries.
As for its usefulness - ask any musician who would like to play some of the classical repertoire's warhorses or, better still, investigate some dusty sonata, string quartet or vocal piece. It sounds like a superb way of rejuvenating some hitherto ignored works. This must be a good thing, surely?
Now, the tricky bit. Won't free access to scores damage publishers' incomes? Well, it's important to remember that, depending on the regional and legal circumstances, these scores are free for anyone to download and use. It's one of those grey areas that the internet has created. Just as I can't stop someone releasing their three-hour long Creative Commons album of electronic drones and cat genitorture, music publishers can't (yet) deny access to scores that have fallen out of copyright. The cat is out of the bag (and looking somewhat frazzled). Some of these scores are so obscure that publishers would lose money if they were to release a professionally bound edition. However, many musicians, given the choice, would also like to own a properly edited and produced copy of, say, Beethoven's piano sonatas. I like to think that there's room for both approaches. In fact, I've made room for this excellent website in the CTW sidebar under "General Netlabel Sites". Trust me, it's better than a Nobel.
One small but vital point: the Petrucci Music Library has, wherever possible, placed a link to Amazon on a relevant score's Wikipage. Wonderfully, this means that the user is pointed to a variety of commercial recordings and scores, and is thus tempted to splash some cash, a particularly good thing when dealing with lesser-known works. Who knows, the IMSLP might even be responsible for increasing the sales of some CDs and scores. This is undoubtedly another example of the internet being the best thing since man found an amusing use for grapes and hops. And no, that's not another hip-hop genre. Please consider pressing the IMSLP "Donate" button if you feel the same.
To finish, some music. (Yes, I know. I'll try to review some albums in the near future.) Here's Artur Schnabel in 1935 storming through the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No.21, the Waldstein:
* I said that out of sheer devilry. I'm fond of atonal claptrap - in small doses.