Playing Da Vinci’s Tune

A Polish concert pianist has turned a Renaissance dream into a reality (click “CC” for English captions):

The story behind the instrument:

Buried in the pages of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous 15th century notebooks, amongst the sketches of flying machines, parachutes, diving suits, and armored tanks, was a curious idea for a musical instrument that merged the harpsichord and cello. The Italian Renaissance polymath referred to it as the viola organista. The general idea for the instrument was to correlate keyboard fingerwork with the sustained sound of a stringed instrument, but among the dozens of ideas pursued by the gifted artist and inventor, this was one he never explored further. Nearly 100 years would pass before an organist in Nuremberg would build the first functional bowed keyboard instrument, and many others would try throughout history to realize Da Vinci’s vision with various levels of success.

Now, after an estimated 5,000 hours of work over three years and nearly $10,000 invested in the project, Polish concert pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki has unveiled his own version of the viola organista.

The mechanics:

The flat bed of its interior is lined with golden spruce. Sixty-one gleaming steel strings run across it, similar to the inside of a baby grand. Each is connected to the keyboard, complete with smaller black keys for sharp and flat notes. But unlike a piano, it has no hammered dulcimers. Instead, there are four spinning wheels wrapped in horse-tail hair, like violin bows. To turn them, Zubrzycki pumps a pedal below the keyboard connected to a crankshaft. As he tinkles the keys, they press the strings down onto the wheels, emitting rich, sonorous tones reminiscent of a cello, an organ and even an accordion. The effect is a sound that da Vinci dreamt of, but never heard.

J. Bryan Lowder is delighted:

While the viola organista is unlikely to replace pianos or string ensembles (or more practical string synthesizers for that matter) any time soon, it seems compelling as a compositional tool in certain special cases where a dense, acoustic string sound is desirable, but the trouble of hiring multiple string players is not. That’s assuming you can get Zubrzycki to lend you his one-of-a-kind realization. In any case, it’s always good to have a little more music in the world, especially when it comes straight from the 500-year-old mind of a maestro.