Piano Street Magazine

Leonardo da Vinci’s Viola Organista Comes to Life After 500 Years!

December 6th, 2013 in Piano News by

Hear the world premiere of a new instrument:

Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) coined the term Renaissance Man after applying the concept of Renaissance Humanism and opined that such a man would be able “to do all things if he will.” Even though Leonardo da Vinci was only 20 when Alberti died, he more than fulfilled the elder man’s vision. He sketched diagrams for 20th century parachutes by observing falling leaves, drew up plans for a submarine, and sketched a helicopter after seeing the whirling seeds of the maple tree.

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“Music is the food of the soul” - Leonardo da Vinci

In addition to these scientific pursuits, he found time to be one of the greatest artists of all time. Many people don’t know, however, that this incredible thinker was also a musician. According to his biographers, Leonardo was an outstanding lira da braccio player for his time, and he used this viola type instrument to improvise while he sang. He also played the lute and probably the organ. As for keyboard instruments he even designed his own: the viola organista. He outlined the basic concept for this heretofore unknown instrument in his 1488 collection of notebooks called the Codex Atlanticus.

A Unique Instrument

The instrument’s sound is unique in the world. The circular horsehair bows of the instrument are driven by the pedals, and, as long as the player continues pedaling, the sound sustains. Deft musicians can even wrest a crescendo from a single note. Leonardo’s passion for expressing life’s beauty through motion reinforces his belief that music was the highest of the arts because it was produced through motion.

Even so great a master as da Vinci had his flaws, however, and his was procrastination. Leonardo designed, drew, and built almost 30 different protoype parts of the viola organista, which he wanted to simulate an entire viola section. As with many of his paintings, he never quite got around to finishing the final product before he died in 1519; 56 years later, Hans Hayden (1536-1613) built what he called the Geigenwerk, which, translated from German, means “violin works.” It borrowed heavily from da Vinci’s concepts, but Hayden’s instrument was more similar to the hurdy-gurdy than Leonardo’s. A hundred years after the death of Leonardo, Michael Praetorius stated in his Syntagma Musicum that such an instrument was a useful contribution to the musical world.

A Polish Enterprise

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Slawomir Zubrzycki playing his new Viola Organista

Before Polish keyboard virtuoso Slawomir Zubrzycki built his current viola organista, the only one extant was Truchado’s “violincémbalo,” or bowed harpsichord, which was built in 1625 and is now in a Brussels museum. Zubrzycki’s masterpiece is stunning to behold. It has a midnight-blue outer body, and its interior is the color of raspberry jam. There, embossed in exquisite gold leaf, it says, “Holy prophets and scholars immersed in the sea of arts both human and divine, dreamed up a multitude of instruments to delight the soul.” Like Bach’s harpsichords of the early 18th century, Zubrzycki’s viola organista has a five-octave range. The instrument’s 61 strings gleam against an interior fashioned of golden spruce.

News report from AFP:


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