Musopen Sets Music Free

There ought to be but one large art warehouse in the world, to which the artist could carry his art-works, and from which he could carry away whatever he needed. As it is, one must be half a tradesman. — Ludwig van Beethoven

Six years ago, Aaron Dunn had a simple vision: to set music free.

At the time, music sales were plummeting yet the cost of the music itself was increasing steadily. Classical music especially almost seemed to be under fire. Other than brilliant budget labels like Naxos, the price of CDs neared twenty dollars and sales continued to decline, with the top-selling albums often selling fewer than 200 copies a week. Orchestras around the world were having trouble paying for the performance rights for works by living or even dead composers that had been in the public domain (which has since shrunk even further with the recent Supreme Court decision). Even for composers who have been dead since the 18th Century, the costs of rights on the sheet music for performance were prohibitive, and using contemporary performances for anything other than personal use was also impossible because of copyright laws. As Mr. Dunn wrote:

Right now, if you were to buy a CD of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, you would not be legally allowed to do anything but listen to it. You wouldn’t be able to share it, upload it, or use it as a soundtrack to your indie film–yet Beethoven has been dead for 183 years and his music is no longer copyrighted. There is a lifetime of music out there, legally in the public domain, but it has yet to be recorded and released to the public.

In 2006, Mr. Dunn founded his company, Musopen, as a non-profit organization dedicated to providing copyright-free music content: not just music recordings, but also sheet music and music textbooks. For its first four years, the Musopen project relied upon donations to purchase and release music to the public domain. With the rise of crowd-funding programs in 2010, Mr. Dunn decided to see if classical music could draw enough attention and support from donors on an even more ambitious level.

That year, Musopen began a modest Kickstarter campaign that started thus:

We want your help to hire an internationally renowned orchestra to record and release the rights to: the Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky symphonies. We have price quotes from several orchestras and are ready to hire one, pending the funds.

In a fairly astringent economy, one could easily predict failure or at most a modest success from such a project. After all, classical music is dead, the old saw goes. Instead, asking for $10,000, Musopen’s Kickstarter actually received $68,360.

Now after the more than mildly successful Kickstarter project, the Musopen musicians last week finally completed their recordings in Prague and have released a full DVD of classical delights. The list of recordings is phenomenal for any music lover, even one who only casually likes classical music or one who is simply eager to learn. Not content with only a complete cycle of Brahms’ four symphonies, the orchestra also got busy recording some other works, while Musopen also hired a string quartet to take on a massive amount of chamber music. The Musopen DVD, available for download at the Internet Archive as well as from Musopen itself, contains the following:

Symphonic Music
Beethoven – Coriolanus Overture
Beethoven – Egmont Overture Op. 84
Beethoven – Symphony No 3, “Eroica”
Borodin – In The Steppes Of Central Asia
Brahms – Tragic Overture
Grieg – Peer Gynt Suites
Mendelssohn – Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave)
Mendelssohn – Symphony No 3, “Scottish”
Mendelssohn – Symphony No 4, “Italian”
Mozart – Magic Flute Overture
Mozart – Marriage Of Figaro
Mozart – Symphony No 40 in G Minor
Rimsky-Korsakov – Russian Easter Overture
Smetana – Vltava (“The Moldau,” from Ma Vlast)
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No 6, “Pathetique”

Chamber Music
Bach – Goldberg Variations
Beethoven – String Quartet in B flat Major Op 18
Borodin – String Quartet No 1
Borodin – String Quartet No 2
Dvorak – String Quartet No 12 in F major, “American”
Dvorak – Quartet in F Major Op 51
Haydn – Quartet in D Major Op.64
Mendelssohn – Quartet in F Minor Op 80
Mozart – Quartet D Minor K421
Mozart – Quartet in C Major K 465
Schubert – Piano Sonatas
Suk – Meditation on Saint Wenceslas for String Quartet Op 35

This is a phenomenal amount of music. The price is definitely right. More importantly, though, the cause is right. One need not be much of a Lawrence Lessig follower to sense how deeply broken American copyright law has become. The public domain has become a battlefield for companies seeking to deprive Americans of the public domain as completely as possible, thus restricting the ideas and enjoyment that come from a fair study of the past. The cure for this creeping “read-only culture,” as Professor Lessig calls it, relies upon a greater Creative Commons and a stronger public domain so that ideas and enjoyment may once again run free.

Beyond the basic level of pure enjoyment both intellectual and artistic, the Musopen project also provides something sadly lacking from most Americans’ lives: education. The Musopen recordings not only exist for free download by consumers but also for educational uses on the Internet and in classrooms, where the recordings may be synchronized with the sheet music.

Where does the music go afterwards? Thanks to generous and free hosting from ibiblio, music will remain on our website indefinitely, and we will share it with other organizations: included in Wikipedia articles, added to archive.org, and integrated with OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) laptops.

Musopen are well on their way to becoming that art warehouse of which Beethoven wrote long ago. True, they have a while to wait before the 20th Century finally resolves its various absurdities and becomes available to the public domain. Any contemporary musician must still remain at least half a tradesman. Still, this is a genuine and impressive leap forward. One can only anxiously await their next campaign–presumably to print a public domain book on music theory, an affordable necessity to students everywhere, one so sadly lacking from the world right now.

Filed under Culture, Music, News

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net