By Cliff Hall | From the January-February 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

In January of 1990, Pittsburgh classical music station WQED-FM’s morning host Jim Cunningham was strolling through a museum at the University of Pittsburgh when something caught his eye. “A page from a score was in plain sight in a display case at the Stephen Foster Memorial,” said Cunningham, having spied a fragment of a manuscript of Antonín Dvořák’s arrangement of Foster’s “Old Folks at Home.” Piqued by the discovery, museum director Deane Root tracked down the manuscript and parts in Dvořák’s handwriting, which had been in storage at the memorial since 1950.

Antonín Dvořák’s arrangement of Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home."
Antonín Dvořák’s arrangement of Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home.” Photo: University of Pittsburgh.

With the music director of the University of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and one of Pittsburgh’s best sopranos, Demareus Cooper, onboard, this chance encounter led to a performance and recording of the piece almost a century after Dvořák had himself conducted the premiere in New York on January 23, 1894, at a benefit concert organized by the city’s National Conservatory. “The Dvořák Foster arrangement ties in with Dvořák’s American composing thoughts about relying on American folk music and motifs that set in motion his New World Symphony and other American Dvořák favorites,” says Cunningham. “Looking at the score and thinking of Dvořák’s Foster connection makes you feel closer to both composers.”

Though still available to see in person, this score is now also available online—a change that has led to a revolution in research, as discoveries like this before the digital age could be quite rare because most people had neither the time nor the resources to gain access to the collections housed all over the world. What once signified an investment in travel, time, and lodging to delve into the autograph treasures housed in publicly accessible libraries is now often represented in a few clicks of a mouse. In fact, most people’s first step to finding scores nowadays is to look on the website of the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP). Also known as the Petrucci Music Library, the largest public domain music library in the world was started by Edward Guo in 2006 with quite an ambitious mission.

“We aim to collect all public domain music scores from across the world,” writes Guo in an email. “The history of publication means most of our collection consists of Western classical music, but we welcome and host other genres and ethnicities of music as well, as long as the works are public domain or appropriately licensed under a Creative Commons license.”

The site provides access to scores, arrangements, and their accompanying parts of works by such notable composers as Mozart, Beethoven, and Debussy, as well as links to images of original manuscripts. Reading manuscripts can be tricky, especially if the composer tended toward the illegible in their handwriting prowess. What prompted Guo to include these as well?


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Manuscript copy of Lacrimosa of Mozart's Requiem in D minor, K. 626, Photo: IMSLP
Manuscript copy of Lacrimosa of Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, K. 626. Photo: IMSLP.

“We’ve gotten feedback from performers that studying the original composer manuscripts gives the music another dimension—sometimes the composer’s intent can be found in nuances on the manuscript, whether it be corrections or ambiguities, emphases, or other details,” says Guo. “After all, many editions were based on an editor’s interpretation of the composer’s manuscript, and an involved performer may form their own interpretation in studying the original material.”

For example, one can peer into the final moments of Mozart’s life by listening to a recording and viewing the unfinished manuscript copy of Lacrimosa of his Requiem in D minor, K. 626, on IMSLP. He composed the initial eight bars, encompassing string parts for the first two bars, followed by just the chorus and continuo for the subsequent section. Franz Xaver Süssmayr’s (1766–1803) hand is not evident in this score, though he did finish it for Mozart’s widow Constanze so she could get paid for the commission. As usual, commerce prioritized ahead of art yielded a disappointing result, as Süssmayr’s attempt is widely considered a poor effort. To see the original score in person, you’ll need to travel to the Austrian National Library in Vienna, Austria.

There are limitations to what IMSLP can share, however, as it doesn’t own any original works. If you are looking to examine pieces by more modern composers (any music published after 1927 is protected by the Copyright Act of 1976), you’ll need to seek institutions that have the original scores in their collection or that have made digital copies available on their website.

One such example is found in the early sketches of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, which the Library of Congress (original commissioner of the piece) has in its collection of works by American composers. In one image of Copland’s early conception of the piece, one can see the composer’s own hand scratching out measures in what might have been a different direction to take in the iconic beginning. And although it is one thing to see these images online, it is quite another to handle scores in person. 

“There’s something magical about being with the physical item and knowing the history—the people who have touched it before you or the people who created it,” says Paul Sommerfeld, a senior music reference specialist in the music division at the Library of Congress (LOC). “Sometimes there are details that you can only catch in person.”

Although some libraries only make this service available to scholars, this national institution has a different approach. “One of the things that we pride ourselves on at the Library of Congress and especially in the music division is making materials accessible to all people who come to visit us,” says Sommerfeld. “To visit the Library of Congress and enter any reading room, you need to get a reader card, which is our version of a public library card. It takes about ten to 15 minutes, and you can acquire it upon arrival. It just requires a photo ID. So once you’ve gotten that card at reader registration, you can enter any of the reading rooms in the Library of Congress.”

Sommerfeld does recommend making an appointment in advance though. “Scores may be offsite, and it takes us a couple of days to bring things in. What I’d hate more than anything is for somebody to arrive—say they’re here on vacation—and their request is offsite and they’re not going be able to see it before they have to leave.”

Requests like these are started by using the “Ask a Librarian” feature on the LOC website. Not all pieces are available to be seen in person though. “There are some times when the manuscript is just too brittle or too frail. This unfortunately happens with manuscripts from the early 20th century because paper from that time period was extremely cheap and extremely acidic, and so now it very easily breaks and disintegrates,” says Sommerfeld. “That’s another reason why we ask people to contact us in advance, because sometimes there is a reason why we’ve scanned it. We try to serve things as much as we can, dependent on the health of the item.”

Library of Congress main reading room.
Library of Congress main reading room. Photo: Pexels.

Other examples in the LOC collection include an original score of John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and George Gershwin’s own arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue for jazz band and piano. These pieces are a part of the LOC’s Jazz Collection, in which there are also scores by Max Roach, Billy Strayhorn, Charles Mingus, and Jelly Roll Morton. In addition to classical and jazz manuscripts, the library also has popular and folk music, although the latter is more the domain of the American Folk Life Center, which is a separate entity at the Library of Congress. 

Institutions around the world, like the British Museum and the New York Public Library, have similar offerings as the LOC, although one impressive technical standout is the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn’s “autograph-with-sound” of the Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 (also known as the “Pastoral” Symphony). “To read and follow Beethoven’s sheet music while listening to the actual music is a particular pleasure,” eloquently states its website. “For the 39 Music and Score applications, recordings done by Deutsche Grammophon were combined with Beethoven’s autographs.”

Although so many of these scores are now accessible with the click of a mouse, there have been times throughout history that the security of scores has not been so reliable. The original manuscript of the Brandenburg Concertos, for example, came under aerial bombardment when a Berlin librarian was transporting it by train to a Prussian castle during World War II. He hid the score under his coat and dashed into a forest, diving to the ground for cover as the bombers returned to attack.

Luckily, most canonic music has been scanned and preserved, and music lovers no longer have to weather the strains of circumstance and the winds of change to guarantee that these precious scores will be available to future generations.