Brian Wise covers the classical music business for WQXR, including aspects of performance, technology, philanthropy and institutional trends. He produces the Café Concerts series and the podcast/show Conducting Business. He manages the station's homepage and makes sure what you hear on air is what you see online. Follow him on Twitter at @Briancwise.
Leonardo Da Vinci's Eccentric Instrument Brought to Life in Poland
Monday, November 18, 2013 - 03:30 PM
Leonardo Da Vinci – painter, philosopher, inventor – excelled at almost everything he turned his hand to, although his mind was often so busy with new projects, he had trouble finishing what he'd started.
One of those ideas that didn’t go anywhere concerned an instrument called the viola organista, a kind of mechanical hurdy-gurdy invented around 1470-80. Also known as a harpsichord-viola, the instrument combines the bowed sound of a viola (or cello) with a cabinet that resembles a baby grand piano. Leonardo’s aim was to find a mechanical way of activating the strings by means of a belt.
In recent years, a handful of inventor-performers have taken up the challenge of constructing a viola organista. The latest is the Polish pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki, who unveiled his creation – full of steel strings and spinning wheels – at the Krakow Piano Festival on Oct. 18. A video of highlights has been posted on YouTube.
Zubrzycki’s viola organista was built from drawings in the Codex Atlanticus, a 1,000-page set of notebooks covering everything from weaponry to plants, which were discovered by an art historian in 1967.
While Zubrzycki's demonstration has been reported as a premiere, others have built instruments using the same da Vinci plans including the Piffaro Renaissance Band in New York and the Japanese harpsichord-maker Akio Obuchi. The former was displayed at an exhibit at Discovery Times Square in 2009.
"I have no idea what Leonardo da Vinci might think of the instrument I've made, but I'd hope he'd be pleased," the mild-mannered Zubrzycki told the AFP. Watch the video of his performance below.