Music history of a bizarre kind has been made some weeks ago in Poland.

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452-1519), the great Italian Renaissance painter, sculptor, inventor, architect, mathematician, astronomer, engineer, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer, is the archetype of the Renaissance Man. But he was also an accomplished musician, and his contemporary and biographer Vasari documents his proficiency in at least two instruments, the flute and lyre, and that he “sang divinely without any preparation.”

Da Vinci Self Portrait

That da Vinci was a prolific inventor and had almost prophetic prescience, with detailed sketches of the prototypes of gadgets ranging from the parachute, helicopter, armoured tank and diving suit cramming his notebooks, is well-known.

But buried in the pages of his Codex Atlanticus, circa 1470, he had also sketched the basic concept of “possibly one of the most mysterious musical instruments in history”, in the words of Polish concert pianist, composer, and the instrument designer and maker Slawomir Zubrzycki. This was an instrument that combined the virtues of a harpsichord (keyboard fingerwork) and a viola da gamba (the sustained sound of notes). Da Vinci himself referred to it as a “viola organista.” There is no historical record of da Vinci ever actually proceeding to build this instrument.

Codex Atlanticus by Leonardo Da Vinci, (page 93r)

A hybrid fitting this description, the first functional bowed keyboard instrument, only surfaces a hundred years later, built by organist Hans Heiden in Nuremberg. Heiden called it a Geigenwerk (“Fiddle organ”). Could Heiden have known of the da Vinci sketches? It seems rather unlikely, given that the great Renaissance polymath’s notebooks, which were bequeathed to his friend Francesco Melzi, were sold piecemeal by the latter’s family and therefore scattered all over Europe.

Heiden’s “creation” (if you will pardon the pun) finds mention in 1618 by prominent researcher Michael Praetorius. Zubrzycki relates in a video interview: “The instrument was presented as a revolutionary development: it was able to replace both keyboard and stringed instruments. The baroque description included even more: that the instrument was able to imitate both urban and folk musicians, that it was able to play vibrato, and oddest of all, that it was able to impersonate a person intoxicated with liquor.”

“I found this situation to be extremely peculiar. If the instrument was really such a revolutionary development, then why was it lost? What happened? Did it not find its own Stradivarius, Ruckers or Steinway who would have perfected it? Is that why it has been lost in the mists of time? And what would have happened in the history of music if that instrument had become popular? We’ll never know.”

Zubrzycki toiled around 5000 hours over a span of three years, and spent almost USD 10,000 to create his own working version of the viola organista, and played it in public for the first time at the 5th International Royal Krakow Piano festival at the Academy of Music there recently. “This instrument has the characteristics of three we know: the harpsichord, the organ and the viola da gamba”, he declared.

Leonardo da Vinci viola organista

As is evident from the accompanying picture, the flat bed interior of the contraption does resemble a modern piano, but with some fundamental differences: instead of hammered dulcimers, there are four spinning wheels wrapped in horse-tail hair, as you would expect on the bows of stringed instruments. The wheels are turned by a foot-operated pair of pedals connected to a crankshaft.

Zubrzycki’s interest was first awakened by an instrument called a Claviolin by a 19th century Polish instrument designer Jan Jarmusiewicz.

Zubrzycki is a concert pianist, but has had past experience in designing instruments before. He used to deal in grand pianos, and in 1994 he had built a replica of Johann Andreas Silbermann’s clavichord from 1775. He says his “intuition” got him past some difficult moments when he seemed to be at a dead end in the viola organista project. He first built a smaller model, to work out the mechanics of the instrument, and “to develop solutions in woodcraft and metallurgy.”

The raspberry-coloured inside of the lid of Zubrzycki’s instrument has the following quote, in gold leaf and in Latin, from the great Roman Catholic Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), German nun, mystic, philosopher, writer, musician and composer, another polymath like da Vinci and named Doctor of the Church last year by Pope Benedict XVI: “Holy Prophets and scholars immersed in the arts both human and divine, dreamt up a multitude of instruments to delight the soul.”

If you wish to know if your own soul would be delighted as well, type “Zubrzycki viola organista” in the YouTube searchbar and you could hear the Krakow début recital for yourself. In the 10-minute clip, Zubrzycki plays first Carl Friedrich Abel’s Allegro WKO 205, followed by Le Badinage by Marin Marais, and then by Antoine Forqueray’s La Couperin, and ends, perhaps for some comic relief, with Luigi Boccherini’s famous Minuet. Le Badinage will be of interest to those who recently attended the recital by Filipa Meneses at the Menezes Braganza hall, where she played this very same work on viola da gamba.

The continuous and even contact of horsehair on the strings due to the mechanised action of the wheels distinguishes the sonority of the viola organista from the viola da gamba, although there are strong similarities. The absence of a “soundbox” in the organista also contributes to this difference. Lastly, the fact that the notes are not “fingered” but different strings are “bowed” to produce notes that would have been played on the same string in the gamba instrument make the organista sound like a weird cross-breed between a harpsichord and an organ.

There are similarities with the humbler and smaller hurdy-gurdy which also uses a rotating wheel to play strings, but there are fundamental differences as well. The hurdy-gurdy has fewer strings which are constantly in contact with the wheel, whereas the organista has more strings which are lowered onto the wheel to produce the notes. Also the hurdy-gurdy has tangents to change the pitch of the string, rather like placing fingers on the strings of conventional bowed string instruments.

One cannot help but speculate along with Zubrzyncki how different the course of music history might have been had this curious chimera of an instrument entered the popular realm and gripped the imagination of the great composers.


(An edited version of this article was published on 1 December 2013 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)