Leonardo Da Vinci’s Viola Organista Recreated

Using new technology, the artist's invented instrument has been resurrected--bringing the sounds of the renaissance to life.

Nov 20 2013, 4:56pm


5000 hours, three years, and £6,000 (≈$9,665.40) were nothing compared to the payoff of hearing the strains of Leonardo Da Vinci’s late 15th century vision of the viola organista actually wafting through the air.

Polish pianist, composer, and instrument maker Slawomir Zubrzyckihas made reality of a concept that he found in the Codex Atlanticus, Da Vinci’s 12-volume manuscript comprised of 1,119 leaves with observations, theories, and inventions relating to science, math, anatomy, physics, architecture, weaponry, flight technology, and, apparently, art.  

The dainty, angled instrument (first conceptualized circa 1470-1480) resembles a harpsichord, and its exterior features sapphire blue paint with golden detailing. The lid is of the richest red, and the interior bears a gold leaf inscription in Latin of the choice words of Saint Hildegard: “Holy prophets and scholars immersed in the sea of arts both human and divine dreamt up a multitude of instruments to delight the soul.”

The sharp and flat notes of the 61 keys are painted black, while the naturals bear the warm tan hue that matches the rest of the instrument’s spruce composition. The flat bed supports 61 steel stretched over several arched bridges akin to what one would see on a violin, viola, cello, or bass. Just under the strings lie four spinning wheels wrapped in horsehair, making for a lovely scalloped aesthetic overall. These pretty pieces are also functionally essential; operation of a foot pedal sets the wheels spinning, while the pressing of the keys pushes the desired strings down upon the hair-lined wheels, contributing to an orchestral sound that is both familiar and alien.

Zubrzycki stated that the viola organista “has the characteristics of three [instruments] we know: the harpsichord, the organ and the viola da gamba.” Some have described the range of sound as evoking the cello in the lower register and organ or accordion in the higher register, with the harpsichord’s baroque timbre overall. Others have commented upon a sound delay as the main technical drawback of the instrument (if one would dare criticize the Renaissance Man or his craftsman at this time!). But if the organista does lag slightly in translating the player’s intentions into music, it also provides the eerie level of regularity and integrity that could only occur if an entire chamber orchestra played with as much synchronicity a single keyboardist’s fingers wield. In short, this is the ultimate synthesizer of ancient instruments we’ve never even heard, and this thrill must be behind observers’ reports of getting goosebumps or being swept up by feelings of love.

YouTube still  of the live performance at the International Royal Kraków Piano Festival.

The world debut of the instrument took place in October at the Academy of Music in Krakow. Similar attempts to bring the instrument to life were made in 2004 or even earlier by Japanese harpsichord maker Akio Obuchi and unveiled in locations such as Genoa, Italy in 2004 and New York City in December, 2009. However, this prototype and others thereafter were not without flaws in function and sound; glitches which Zubrzycki attempted to allay in his own reconstruction. Another difference is that Obuchi’s models were not powered by the musician’s legs, as was originally intended by the Master.

via Hindustan Times

Though instruments with similar mechanisms, such as the Wheel Harp and Obuchi’s Geigenwerkalready exist and are even within the grasp of common consumers, Zubrzycki’s specimen of a Vinci’s organista may be considered the first full representation of the keyboarded instrument in which the strings are neither plucked (as with the harpsichord) or hammered (as with the modern piano.

Da Vinci's original sketch via This Is Colossal 

This might just be the point at which the preservationists of early music and aural futurists meet. After all, when a sound that has never been heard before is released into the universe, it is legitimately brand spanking new, no matter how long ago it was imagined. There is no evidence that organistas were actualized any time in the past, and minds will continue to be blown by modern manifestations. The all-new sounds emitted by the ancient brainchild of one of the most enigmatic, enchanting, and enduring intellects of humanity is nothing short of humbling; the viola organista is one outer limits machine, even if it’s centuries old in design.

There are so many questions now for Zubrzycki: about deliberations in constructing this realization, any overlap with Obuchi, and intentions (i.e. to show, lend, sell, or educate?), to name a few. The English version of his portfolio is minimalistic in comparison to the full-on Polish website, and only Polish speakers will know what he divulges in this video interview (at least the clip offers a glimpse of the interior machinery at work).

“I'd hope he'd be pleased,” Zubrzycki demurs, when asked how he thinks da Vinci would receive the realization of one of his designs. Today’s audiences, however, are likely to clamor for more before their imaginations are satisfied.

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