Bizarre Da Vinci Instrument
November 20, 2013

Polish Pianist Builds Da Vinci’s Bizarre Instrument For First Time

[ Watch The Video: Leonardo da Vinci's Weird Piano Heard For The First Time ]

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

What do you get when you cross a harpsichord, an organ and a viola da gamba? A 500-year-old Leonardo da Vinci invention that had never been played – until now.

On Monday, Polish concert pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki staged the first-ever public performance of the viola organista – an instrument conceived by da Vinci during the Renaissance and painstakingly constructed by Zubrzycki.

Similar in appearance to a baby grand piano, 61 shiny steel strings run across the instrument’s golden spruce-lined interior. In a layout similar to that of a piano, each is string is connected to a separate key, with large white keys and smaller black keys, for sharp and flat notes.

Unlike a piano the novel instrument does not use hammered dulcimers to generate tones from the tuned strings. Instead, it employs four spinning wheels outfitted with horse-tail hair that act like violin bows. To activate the wheels, the player has to pump a pedal positioned under the keyboard, which is connected to a crankshaft.

In the debut performance, Zubrzycki pressed the piano-like keys, sending the strings down onto the spinning wheels and resulting in dulcet tones highly reminiscent of a cello, but with the subtle feel and accenting of a keyed instrument.

“It's a keyboard instrument but it sounds like someone is playing it with a bow like a violin or a cello - a very warm sound, very velvety, very beautiful,” award-winning Hungarian concert pianist Gabor Farkas told the Daily Mail.

“One thing the piano is missing is that as soon as you hit one note, it dies,” he added. “Here you can make a crescendo. It's the dream of all pianists!”

“I've fallen in love with this sound,” Polish concert pianist Marian Sobula agreed. “All pianists and string players yearn for it, for these long, never-ending notes which you can't play on the piano. It just gives you goose bumps.”

The sounds are probably similar to those that da Vinci imagined but never heard. There is no record of the instrument ever being built in his lifetime.

“Leonardo da Vinci invented it around 1470-80. 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 told reporters.

The Polish pianist decoded da Vinci’s designs and notes for the instrument that were found in the famed inventor’s Codex Atlanticus, a 12-volume compilation of his ideas on everything from weapons to flight.

Da Vinci’s design is somewhat similar to the hurdy gurdy – which is thought to have its origins in either western European or Middle Eastern fiddles. The hurdy gurdy also uses a spinning wheel to elicit tones from tuned strings. However, these strings are constantly in contact with the wheel while it spins – resulting in droning tones underlying any melody that might be played.

The viola organista is not the first instrument to be constructed based on da Vinci’s designs. In 1575 the German Hans Haiden built the geigenwerk – a similar keyboard-based instrument with bowed strings and spinning wheels. According to experts at the Musical Instruments Museum (MIM) in Brussels, Haiden’s geigenwerk is the first known instrument to be made from da Vinci designs.