In line with lots of other things that are becoming free these days, there is a wealth of out-of-copyright music that is being scanned and uploaded to the Petrucci Music Library at imslp.org. There are many different types of music being made available, including original manuscripts like the above (original as in a ‘fair copy’ of Bach’s Cello Suite No.1 by Anna Magdalena Bach), recordings, solo instrumental, full orchestral sets, chamber music and modern arrangements and transcriptions. There is also entirely new music distributed for free by the composers.
There does not seem to be in place, as yet, any sort of evaluation process for the quality of materials placed on IMSLP so a certain amount of care needs to be taken. A few years ago, as part of a conducting course I was running, I wanted to use a modern transcription of a score and set of parts of a Mozart symphony. However, on suggesting this to the course Director, he pointed out that the horn parts were transcribed incorrectly. I tried to get in touch with the transcriber to see if the error could be changed but was unable to find him. So it should be noted that, as always, free comes at a cost. In this case vigilance is needed to make sure what you’re getting is what you need. Also, if you’re downloading orchestral sets along with piano reduction, you do have to check the reduction carefully to see that it matches. Usually in this, counting total number of bars, checking the key and time signatures and then a few spot checks will suffice.
Finally, we have an example of transcribers working to bring the ancient into the modern world. The section below from the Bach’s first cello suite by Shin-Itchiro Yokoyama is very stylishly presented, but I’m unsure what edition or editions he has worked from. The first two slurs from the Anna Magdalena edition above are included as editorial markings while the rest are not. The slurs that do appear are not present in the Anna Magdalena and are therefore performers’ marks? Whilst there is nothing at all wrong with this, it would be great to see a simple system for editors and transcribers to state the purpose and lineage of an edition. There is some discussion on Yokoyama’s blog and a link on to further information on sources for the cello suites but it would be nice to know suggested those slurs without having to do deep research. However, very nicely presented and very useful for the cellists of the world, I am sure. Perhaps at some stage, I’ll have to put my money where my mouth is and get involved in organising the study groups that are needed to present the necessary information and quality assurance for editions at IMSLP!