Green Room

Da Vinci’s viola organista debuts … 500 years after its design

posted at 12:00 pm on November 30, 2013 by

It looks and plays like a piano, but it sounds like a string quartet — and it took 500 years before anyone built it. Leonardo da Vinci’s flight of fancy in designing a hammerless piano, called a “viola organista,” has come to life half a millenium after da Vinci designed it, thanks to a Polish concert pianist and musical engineer. It couldn’t have sounded any better in da Vinci’s head (via Brad Thor and Dan Gainor):

A bizarre instrument combining a piano and cello has finally been played to an audience more than 500 years after it was dreamt up Leonardo da Vinci.

Da Vinci, the Italian Renaissance genius who painted the Mona Lisa, invented the ‘‘viola organista’’ – which looks like a baby grand piano – but never built it, experts say.

The viola organista has now come to life, thanks to a Polish concert pianist with a flair for instrument-making and the patience and passion to interpret da Vinci’s plans.

Full of steel strings and spinning wheels, Slawomir Zubrzycki’s creation is a musical and mechanical work of art.

‘‘This instrument has the characteristics of three we know: the harpsichord, the organ and the viola da gamba,’’ Zubrzycki said as he debuted the instrument at the Academy of Music in the southern Polish city of Krakow.

Update: Be sure to read Zombie’s comments and links.  This isn’t the first time the viola organista has been built. Looks like the newspaper didn’t do its homework.

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Cool.

trigon on November 30, 2013 at 12:41 PM

Very Cool. I want one, though it looks like it has a problem with dynamics and vibrato.

Fenris on November 30, 2013 at 12:53 PM

Horrible videography. Perhaps they should have hired a professional for that as well. Would have been nice to see the inner workings in much more detail. But it is very interesting how that kind of sound is produced on a piano keyboard. Looks like it was far too complicated to be built in Da Vinci’s time.

NotCoach on November 30, 2013 at 12:58 PM

Nice job by the Polish guy reconstructing Da Vinci’s designs.

HOWEVER, either he has a dishonest/aggressive publicist, or the journalists writing the article are lazy (likely both), because this is NOT the first time the viola organista has been created and played in public:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viola_organista

“Akio Obuchi built several [viola organista] instruments as early as 1993. In 2004, a modern reconstruction of the viola organista by Akio Obuchi was used in a concert in Genoa, Italy .

In 2013, Sławomir Zubrzycki constructed and performed on his own viola organista at the Academy of Music in Kraków.”

And even earlier:

“Apparently, Leonardo did not build his instrument. The first similar instrument actually to be constructed was the Geigenwerk of 1575 by Hans Haiden, a German instrument inventor.”

It’s always great to see old things brought back, but don’t sully it with over-selling the achievement!

Zombie on November 30, 2013 at 1:50 PM

Reminds me of the baryton. You play it like a normal cello in front, but you also pluck strings in the back with your thumb. Very cool.

artlover on November 30, 2013 at 2:51 PM

It sounds like we have some dubious “experts” commenting in this thread.

Thanks so much for the link, ED! To listen to an instrument designed by da Vinci hundreds of years ago come to life is astounding!

Sherman1864 on November 30, 2013 at 3:15 PM

If I were still building pipe organs, (my former profession of 25 years) I’d want to build this mechanism into a pipe organ somewhere. I did design and build a carillon bell player into a couple of organs, but a viola organista would be completely awesome! Too bad the whole pipe organ industry has gone the way of horse-drawn carriages. Essentially gone now, but there’s still a few boutique builders kicking around. I miss the work but not the business.

Harbingeing on November 30, 2013 at 3:56 PM

Another “dubious expert” chimes in….

The description of it being like a cross between the various instruments described is apt, especially the cello on the more sustained pieces he used as examples. Had I not seen video nor knew of the single instrument, I would have assumed there were two instruments, at least, playing.

A wonderful find! I can only imagine the repertoire that J.S. Bach would have written for it. with it’s multiphonic qualities.

But then, I’m just one of several dubious experts.

princetrumpet on November 30, 2013 at 4:16 PM

If I were still building pipe organs, (my former profession of 25 years) I’d want to build this mechanism into a pipe organ somewhere. I did design and build a carillon bell player into a couple of organs, but a viola organista would be completely awesome! Too bad the whole pipe organ industry has gone the way of horse-drawn carriages. Essentially gone now, but there’s still a few boutique builders kicking around. I miss the work but not the business.

Harbingeing on November 30, 2013 at 3:56 PM

That’s a neat profession to be in. I -love- pipe organ music.

Othniel on November 30, 2013 at 5:07 PM

I’m sure Barry’s response would be “that guy didn’t build that”

roflmmfao

donabernathy on November 30, 2013 at 6:43 PM

Othniel on November 30, 2013 at 5:07 PM

Yes it was a cool career. My favorite projects were the 19th century historical restorations. Had to use the period tools, materials and work methods to keep the organs authentic. I did use electric lights to work, but had to preserve the old candle burns you’d find here and there on the inside parts. I even found an 1843 cash journal from Henry Pilchers shop cut into strips to use as shims in a wind chest I was restoring. Loved the work. Mixing ox-blood paint was a little weird, as was urinating on copper pipes in the flaming process, but learning to do precision woodwork with only hand tools was awesome. Still, at best I’m a dubious expert.

Harbingeing on November 30, 2013 at 7:20 PM

princetrumpet on November 30, 2013 at 4:16 PM

Perhaps I was wrong, ahem, “prince trumpet”.

Sherman1864 on November 30, 2013 at 8:20 PM

Too bad da Vinci spent his quality time drawing and painting when he could have been designing health care for all his people and done something really important for humanity….da vincicare, it has a nice ring,doesn’t it?/sarc

jaywemm on November 30, 2013 at 8:28 PM

jaywemm on November 30, 2013 at 8:28 PM

Bwahahaa!

Harbingeing on November 30, 2013 at 9:46 PM

Beautiful. Almost makes me want to give up listening to 50 Cent and Lil Wayne.

Nomennovum on November 30, 2013 at 9:55 PM

Yes, I want to see such praise for the Master rather than folks tooting their own horns is my point.

After all we are talking about DA VINCI here, no mere mortal!

Sherman1864 on November 30, 2013 at 10:06 PM

How soon before Yamaha knocks it off with a synthesizer?

Another Drew on December 1, 2013 at 12:35 AM

Sounds like an ARP Omni II.

Da Vinci goes Renaissance MIDI.

profitsbeard on December 1, 2013 at 5:13 AM

Typical Sydney Morning Herald journalism. Left wing rag.

The Thin Man Returns on December 1, 2013 at 6:18 AM

If I were still building pipe organs, (my former profession of 25 years) I’d want to build this mechanism into a pipe organ somewhere. I did design and build a carillon bell player into a couple of organs, but a viola organista would be completely awesome! Too bad the whole pipe organ industry has gone the way of horse-drawn carriages. Essentially gone now, but there’s still a few boutique builders kicking around. I miss the work but not the business.

Harbingeing on November 30, 2013 at 3:56 PM

As an organist, I thank you for your contribution to the King of Instruments!

Nutstuyu on December 1, 2013 at 7:27 PM

Beautiful. Almost makes me want to give up listening to 50 Cent and Lil Wayne.

Nomennovum on November 30, 2013 at 9:55 PM

I would think a flock of geese screeching, or a car back firing would do that as well.

On a serious note, I weaped when I heard this. The incalculable magnificence of the human mind pales everything in its wake. To think, Da Vinci didn’t have the technology to build something like this, yet he had the genius to engineer it. It just took a few centuries to realize the invention. Take a moment to witness the magnitude of the human mind, its intelligence and imagination, played out on a thirteenth century invention. Now think how far we have fallen.

Thomas More on December 1, 2013 at 9:07 PM

On a serious note, I weaped when I heard this. The incalculable magnificence of the human mind pales everything in its wake. To think, Da Vinci didn’t have the technology to build something like this, yet he had the genius to engineer it. It just took a few centuries to realize the invention. Take a moment to witness the magnitude of the human mind, its intelligence and imagination, played out on a thirteenth century invention. Now think how far we have fallen.

Thomas More on December 1, 2013 at 9:07 PM

It wouldn’t be a 13th century invention. Leonardo da Vinci lived from 1452 to 1519, mostly in the 15th century and early 16th century.

But Leonardo da Vinci’s genius is truly awesome to anyone who studies his drawings and inventions, and attempts to build them with modern tools and machines. During the 1990′s I had the pleasure of visiting a museum (in Vinci, Leonardo’s home town in Italy) showing many of his original design drawings for machines, many of which had been built centuries later and shown to function as designed.

This genius was amply illustrated when the museum decided to upgrade its walls during the 1960′s, and temporarily took down da Vinci’s designs, they discovered a design for a pedal-powered bicycle on the back of one of da Vinci’s parchments, which had been facing the wall for centuries. This is remarkable, due to the fact that the first “velocipede” or pedal-powered bicycle was built in 1865…

Steve Z on December 2, 2013 at 12:30 PM

Steve Z on December 2, 2013 at 12:30 PM

Thanks for the correction. I knew he did most of his work in the late 1400s. Unfortunately, I always make the error of subtracting a 1, instead of adding, to get the century. I’m dyslectic in that regard.

Someone mentioned this upstream, but if only Bach could have composed on such an instrument. The mind reels.

Thomas More on December 2, 2013 at 12:50 PM

Harbingeing on November 30, 2013 at 3:56 PM

Pretty awesome. My great-aunt and her husband were concert organists and had their home custom built around a pipe organ. That thing was huge – As a 15 year-old, I seem to recall that the longest pipe was about 30 feet high and perhaps a foot in diameter. The organ sat in something like an atrium because you could go up on the second floor and walk in a semi circle around it and look down on the organist and with access to the back of the pipes from that level. Hard to believe it was so many years ago. LOL

AH_C on December 5, 2013 at 1:49 PM