Leonardo da Vinci was many things: a painter, an architect, a scientist, and much else. But was he the original inventor of a remarkable musical instrument involving pedals, spinning wheels of horse hair and a keyboard? It’s not quite clear.
This week, the story of Polish pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki and his newly built viola organista, based on a design by da Vinci, has gone viral in the classical music community. But the claim that “there are no historical records suggesting he or anyone else of his time built the instrument he designed” (as Australian magazine The Age reports) is a little misleading, as Jo Santy of the Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels explained to us today. The model is not nearly as unique as this implies, and Santy even points out that, while it may be all da Vinci’s work, “It’s impossible to say with certainty that this viola organista that he sketched was an original design.”
The composer and musical theorist Michael Praetorius included a woodcut illustration of the instrument – more commonly called a Geigenwerk – in his Syntagma Musicum of 1614–20, an important theoretical work which includes an index of musical instruments of the time. Praetorius refers to it as a Nürmbergisch Geigenwerck, suggesting it was from Nuremberg – so the instrument presumably existed not just in Spain around this time, but also in Germany.
Santy is also keen to correct the description of the instrument as similar to a piano: “Really it’s not much to do with the piano… you could call it four or five hurdy-gurdies placed next to one another.” The sound is produced in the same way as in the hurdy-gurdy, the instrument on which the Geigenwerk/viola organista is likely based – in both designs, a wheel rubs against strings as it turns. Beautiful it may be, but the design is not so unique.
None of this is to suggest that Zubrzycki’s new instrument isn’t impressive: “I think the Polish guy did a very good job,” says Santy, impressed by the soft sound that this viola organista produces, which isn’t easy to achieve. Santy should know – he’s seen and heard this instrument before.