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How Leonardo da Vinci kept from going mad, I have no clue. For one single individual to hold the genius, the creativity, and the curiosity across such a vast spectrum of disciplines perhaps reaches the outer limit of human capability. Yet, somehow this man existed and continues to contribute to the achievements of us all.
I won't even pretend to scratch the surface of this complex man and the body of work he has gifted the world. Instead, I will be focusing on a single idea found among the vast number of sketches in his Codex Atlanticus, the dozen leather-bound volumes he produced from 1478 to 1519. Among these sketches of submarines and tanks and all manor of "ahead of his time" inventions sits page 93r. It was an idea for a musical instrument he dreamed up sometime around 1470.
Drawn with his typical attention to detail, da Vinci created the Viola Organista, a curious instrument that basically combines a harpsichord-like keyboard with a bowed instrument very similar in tone to the cello. His brilliant mind moved on quickly to other ideas swirling through his head and he never lived to see his instrument realized. Others would try. A German instrument maker named Hans Hyden created something similar in 1575 and called it a Geigenwerk. Around 30 of these instruments were made, none of which survive.
Over the years, a smattering of people would try to meld the keyboard instrument with a bowed instrument. As late as 1993, Japanese instrument maker Akio Obuchi took a shot at making the Viola Organista and people were fascinated. However, it took the painstaking work of Polish concert pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki to bring Leonardo da Vinci's instrument to its fruition and people have sat up and taken notice.
The passion and commitment to bringing the world this instrument is astounding. Zubrzycki estimated he spent 5,000 hours building his version of da Vinci's original idea, spending $10,000 in the process. He drew most heavily from da Vinci's sketch, but took under consideration the failures and successes of those who had tried before him. The result is a newly created instrument from a very old idea that is not only functional, but breathtaking in its beauty and sound.
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 one 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 peddle below the keyboard connected to a crankshaft.For those of you who have found this story interesting so far, I highly encourage you to watch this ten minute documentary of Slawomir Zubrzycki and the making of his version of the Viola Organista.
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; there are no historical records suggesting he or anyone else of his time built the instrument he designed.
Zubrzycki gave a highly critically acclaimed concert on the instrument at the International Royal Krakow Piano Festival several weeks ago. He has since garnered international attention and the nearly forgotten Viola Organista has sprung to life. I only wish that it had been available to Bach. That notion gives me shivers.
Here are some excerpts from the concert that has captured the imagination and interest of the musical world.
Now on to Tops!