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FEATURE: Polish pianist brings Da Vinci instrument to life

RARE SOUND:Based on a late 15th-century design by the Renaissance genius, the viola organista sounds like a mixture of the harpsichord, organ and viola da gamba


Polish concert pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki presents an extremely rare viola organista, based on a design by Leonardo da Vinci, on Oct. 18 in Krakow, Poland.

Photo: AFP

With elegant black and tan keys it looks like a baby grand piano, but when tinkled they release the voluptuous tones of a cello.

Painter of the Mona Lisa, Italian Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci also dreamed up the viola organista in the late 15th century as a marriage of keyboard and string instruments. However, he never built it, experts say.

Virtually forgotten, it has come to life thanks to a Polish concert pianist with a flair for instrument-making.

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 recently, as he debuted the instrument at the Academy of Music in Krakow, Poland.

“Leonardo da Vinci invented it around 1470 to [14]80,” the 50-year-old said, as he rummaged in a briefcase full of tools picking one for a final tuning.

The instrument’s exterior is painted in a rich hue of midnight blue adorned with golden swirls painted on the side. The inside of its lid is a deep raspberry inscribed with a Latin quote in gold leaf by 12th-century German nun, mystic and philosopher Saint Hildegard.

“Holy prophets and scholars immersed in the sea of arts both human and divine, dreamt up a multitude of instruments to delight the soul,” it says.

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. However, 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 pedal below the keyboard connected to a crankshaft.

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.

A sketch complete with notes in Da Vinci’s characteristic inverted script is found in his Codex Atlanticus, a 12-volume collection of his manuscripts and designs covering everything from mathematics to botany, weaponry to flight.

“I have no idea what Leonardo da Vinci might think of the instrument I’ve made, but I’d hope he’d be pleased,” Zubrzycki said, with just a hint of pride.

Bringing Da Vinci’s dream sound to life was a three-year-long labor of love for Zubrzycki, on which he spent at least 5,000 hours and 30,000 zloty (US$9,700).

The Geigenwerk — “fiddle work” in English — built in 1575 by German Hans Haiden is the first known instrument based on Da Vinci’s design, according to experts at the Musical Instruments Museum (MIM) in Brussels.

Its collection contains another built in 1625 by Spaniard Truchado Raymundo.

“It’s the only wholly preserved example of this instrument” from the past, MIM expert Pascalle Vandervellen said.

Japan’s Aiko Obuchi built a compact table-top model a decade ago, but information about any others is hard to come by.

Contemporary examples are “very rare,” Vandervellen said.

It was standing room only when Zubrzycki held a world premiere recently of his viola organista in a gilded concert hall complete with twinkling crystal chandeliers at the Academy of Music.

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