Watch Leonardo da Vinci’s Musical Invention, the Viola Organista, Being Played for the Very First Time

Just yes­ter­day, we made ref­er­ence to Leonar­do da Vin­ci’s con­tri­bu­tion to ear­ly con­cepts of mechan­i­cal cal­cu­la­tion. But if that sub­set of his achieve­ments does­n’t inter­est you, may we sug­gest you look into his oth­er work in paint­ing, sculp­ture, archi­tec­ture, math­e­mat­ics, engi­neer­ing, anato­my, geol­o­gy, car­tog­ra­phy, botany, and let­ters? Then again, you might find this a par­tic­u­lar­ly oppor­tune time to learn more about Leonar­do da Vin­ci the musi­cian. As the arche­typ­al exam­ple of the poly­math­ic, intel­lec­tu­al­ly omniv­o­rous “Renais­sance man,” he not only attained mas­tery of a wide range of dis­ci­plines, but did his most impres­sive work in the spaces between them. Giv­en the volu­mi­nous­ness of his out­put (not to men­tion the tech­ni­cal lim­i­ta­tions of fif­teenth-cen­tu­ry Europe), many of his mul­ti­ple domain-span­ning ideas and inven­tions nev­er became a real­i­ty dur­ing his life­time. How­ev­er, just this year, 494 years after Leonar­do’s death, we now have the chance to see, and more impor­tant­ly hear, one of them: the vio­la organ­ista, an elab­o­rate musi­cal instru­ment that had pre­vi­ous­ly only exist­ed in his note­books.

We owe this thrill not just to Leonar­do him­self, who left behind detailed plans for the (to him, pure­ly the­o­ret­i­cal) con­struc­tion of such devices as this behind, but to a report­ed 5000 hours of phys­i­cal effort by Pol­ish con­cert pianist Sla­womir Zubrzy­c­ki, who actu­al­ly put the thing togeth­er. You can read more at the Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald, whose arti­cle (on “Leonar­do Da Vin­ci’s wacky piano”) quotes Zubrzy­c­ki: “This instru­ment has the char­ac­ter­is­tics of three we know: the harp­si­chord, the organ and the vio­la da gam­ba,” and play­ing it, which involves hit­ting keys con­nect­ed to “spin­ning wheels wrapped in horse-tail hair,” and turn­ing those wheels by pump­ing a ped­al below the key­board, pro­duces excit­ing unusu­al waves of cel­lo-like sounds. You can watch ten min­utes of Zubrzy­c­ki debut­ing the instru­ment at Krakow’s Acad­e­my of Music above. Depend­ing upon your incli­na­tion toward music, very old tech­nol­o­gy, or very old music tech­nol­o­gy, you may also want to glance at the relat­ed Metafil­ter debate about what place the vio­la organ­ista could have in music today.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Anatom­i­cal Draw­ings of Renais­sance Man, Leonar­do da Vin­ci

An Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry Of Avi­a­tion: From da Vinci’s Sketch­es to Apol­lo 11

What Ancient Greek Music Sound­ed Like: Hear a Recon­struc­tion That is ‘100% Accu­rate’

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (18)
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  • Jaycer17 says:

    Wow, that’s beau­ti­ful. It sounds like a quar­tet of cel­los or some­thing close to that. Leo, you did it again.

  • SeaLaughing says:

    Won­der what my old music the­o­ry teacher thinks about this…

  • Hayes Gouger says:

    who needs this when you’ve got the omni­sphere plu­g­in? looks nice though

  • blazer says:

    this is a won­der­ful post

  • Elaine says:

    excep­tion­al! quite exquis­ite.

  • twinklefingers says:

    Such ded­i­ca­tion: to build some­thing that even Da Vin­ci could­n’t be sure would work, for the sake of show­ing us, once again, what the human mind, when com­bined with the human heart, is capa­ble of.

  • Grainne O Meara says:

    Sounds like a mag­i­cal fusion of strings, organ & glass har­mon­i­ca. u2606 Beau­ti­ful.

  • Cory Alan Brown says:

    Da Vin­ci is sleep­ing bet­ter now. I hope the com­pos­er will post more. Absolute won­dra­ment.

  • Riaan Lourens says:

    Beau­ti­ful, music needs this instru­ment.

  • Patrick Clark says:

    Sad­ly, Sun Ra nev­er got to play this. It is an amaz­ing sound.

  • Really? says:

    Video looks dubbed. I don’t see how a mech­a­nism as com­plex as the one described would fit in that lit­tle harp­si­chord case…

  • Viola Organista says:

    Great to hear that it is so unbe­liev­able! pls feel invit­ed on our Fb page . There is lots of explain­ing stuff.

  • Javier Fabris says:

    El inven­to está bien, pero la músi­ca está para cor­tarse las venas de abur­rim­ien­to, se podrían crear piezas musi­cales más emo­cio­nantes, algo de Rock. Yeah.

  • Davide Pinto says:

    This is all very well and beau­ti­ful: but why not play music of Leonar­do’s time? What would he have con­ceived playable on his instru­ment from amongst cur­rent gen­res? The anachro­nisms in record­ing baroque and post-baroque music are excru­ci­at­ing.

  • William Ring says:

    Beau­ti­ful. A mon­u­men­tal under­tak­ing to build, I am sure. But the “clas­si­fi­ca­tion dif­fi­cul­ty” puz­zles me. Isn’t this sim­ply a large mul­ti-wheel hur­dy gur­dy? The wheels are turned by trea­dle rather than hand crank, and the key­board is played with two hands rather than one, but I would­n’t think that would make it a dif­fer­ent type of instru­ment.

  • Howard says:

    Indeed, would love to hear music of Leonar­do’s time even though none was of course com­posed for this inno­v­a­tive instru­ment.
    The UK’s Clas­sic FM FB feed has a deli­cious exam­ple, evi­dent­ly baroque music, and much bet­ter record­ed than this. They do give a cred­it to the builder, but don’t say what the piece is.

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