Hear Music Played on the Viola Organista, a Piano That Sounds Like a Violin, Which Leonardo da Vinci Invented, But Never Heard

The most illus­tri­ous of inven­tors, Leonar­do da Vin­ci, was not moved by con­ven­tion­al ideas about suc­cess. He took com­mis­sion after com­mis­sion from his wealthy, aris­to­crat­ic patrons, cre­at­ed metic­u­lous plans, then moved on to the next thing with­out finishing—as if he had learned all he need­ed and had no more use for the project. The works we remem­ber him for were a tiny hand­ful among thou­sands of planned designs and art­work. They have the dis­tinc­tion of being his major mas­ter­pieces because they hap­pen to be com­plet­ed.

Had Leonar­do fin­ished all of his pro­posed projects, they would fill the Lou­vre. He was con­tent to leave many of his paint­ings unpaint­ed, sculp­tures unsculpt­ed, and inven­tions unbuilt—sketched out in the­o­ry in his copi­ous note­books, pro­tect­ed from theft by his inge­nious cryp­tog­ra­phy, and left for future gen­er­a­tions to dis­cov­er.

One such inven­tion, the Vio­la Organ­ista, might have changed the course of musi­cal his­to­ry had Leonar­do had the where­with­al or desire to build one in his life­time. Or it might have remained a minor curios­i­ty; there is no way to know.

Sketched out in note­book pages con­tained in the Codex Atlanti­cus, the design showed “an out­line of a con­struc­tion con­cept for a bowed string instru­ment which at the same time is a key­board instru­ment.” A vio­lin that is also a piano, sort of…. Hav­ing built a ver­sion of the instru­ment 500 years after its inven­tion, Pol­ish con­cert pianist Sla­womir Zubrzy­c­ki describes it as hav­ing “the char­ac­ter­is­tics of three [instru­ments] we know: the harp­si­chord, the organ and the vio­la da gam­ba.”

Zubrzy­c­ki spent four years work­ing on his Vio­la Organ­ista. A few years back, we fea­tured a brief per­for­mance, his first pub­lic debut of the instru­ment in 2012. Now, we have much more audio of this incred­i­ble musi­cal inven­tion to share, includ­ing a longer per­for­mance from Zubrzy­c­ki at the top of the post, Marin Marais’ Suite in B Minor, per­formed in 2014 at the Coper­ni­cus Fes­ti­val in Krakow. (You can see the full con­cert just above.) Despite these notable per­for­mances, and his notable cre­ation, Zubrzy­c­ki is not the first to build a Vio­la Organ­ista.

In 2011, Eduar­do Pani­agua, anoth­er musi­cian devot­ed to Leonardo’s instrument—which does indeed sound like a “one per­son string ensem­ble,” as a com­menter at this MetaFil­ter post noted—released a disc of 19 songs by Baroque com­posers, con­tem­po­raries of Leonar­do, played on a Vio­la Organ­ista built by Japan­ese mak­er Akio Obuchi. (Hear the full album on Spo­ti­fy above.) Accom­pa­ny­ing the album, writes Span­ish site Musi­ca Antigua (quot­ed in Eng­lish here via Google trans­late), is “a pro­fuse­ly illus­trat­ed book­let with eleven of the organ­ist vio­la pro­to­types that Leonar­do him­self devised,” with descrip­tions of the instrument’s oper­a­tion by Pani­agua.

Though Leonar­do him­self nev­er built, nor heard, the instru­ment, it did attract inter­est not long after his death. “The old­est sur­viv­ing mod­el,” notes Musi­ca Antigua, “is in El Esco­r­i­al and is dat­ed at the begin­ning of the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry.” Every ver­sion of the Vio­la Organ­ista worked from orig­i­nal design specs like those in Leonardo’s hand above, using wheels to bow the strings when the keys are pressed, rather than ham­mers to strike them.

It’s an inge­nious solu­tion to a prob­lem musi­cians had sought for many years to solve: cre­at­ing a key­board with rich dynam­ics and sus­tain. Whether Leonardo’s design is supe­ri­or to oth­er attempts, like the clavi­chord or, for that mat­ter, the piano, I leave to musi­col­o­gists to debate. We might all agree that the sound of his instru­ment, as played by Pani­agua and Zubrzy­c­ki, is tru­ly orig­i­nal and total­ly cap­ti­vat­ing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Vision­ary Note­books Now Online: Browse 570 Dig­i­tized Pages

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Bizarre Car­i­ca­tures & Mon­ster Draw­ings

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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