Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Ottaviano Who?

About a quarter of a century after Johannes Gutenburg revolutionized publishing words with the invention of the printing press (in 1440), Ottaviano Petrucci was born on June 18, 1466 in Italy.

His legacy would not be nearly as legendary as his German counterpart, but for musicians, Petrucci’s innovations have proven to be equally important. In 1501, he created the first set of sheet music printed from moveable type. Many great composers from the early sixteenth century had their music published with Petrucci’s method, which consisted of three impressions. First, the staves (the sets of parallel lines upon which musical notes are written) were pressed. After that, the notes came along. And in the third impression, words were printed under the notes on the staves. This method was dominant for several decades, before another innovator—Pierre Atttaignant of France—developed a method in which all three stages could be accomplished at once.

Much like Gutenburg’s press, the work of Petrucci, and then Attaignant, revolutionized the way music was read and performed. The sudden ability to mass-produce music manuscripts led not only to standardization of musical notation, but also to much greater distribution of those manuscripts. Musical traditions in different regions in Europe gained exposure elsewhere, and this led to an increased awareness of music theory. Composers began to learn from one another. A new era had dawned in Western music.

The name Ottaviano Petrucci is certainly not one that is heard often these days. But there is a large collection of music that bears his name, and everyone has access.

The Petrucci Music Library of the International Music Score Library Project is an enormous collection of nearly 30,000 scores by over 1,500 composers. It launched several years ago, endured a shutdown caused by copyright concerns, but it has since re-opened with better oversight. For example, scores that are not public domain in the United States cannot be downloaded within the United States—the library’s server is able to discern these things by IP address. You can browse the collection here.

Happy browsing, and happy birthday June 18th, Ottaviano Petrucci!

Joe Goetz
VPR Classical

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