Viola Organista

Leonardo da Vinci was a prolific innovator and renaissance man. So prolific that many of his inventions were not built in his day. One such invention, in the musical field, was the “viola organista”. An instrument that appears similar to a piano, or organ, while sounding much like the strings of a violin or viola.

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Page 93r from da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus

The design of the viola organista involves constantly rotating wheels that strings are lowered onto, vibrating the strings and producing sound. This is similar to the hurdy gurdy (invented much earlier) which uses strings in constant contact to a single spinning wheel. While the hurdy gurdy changes the pitch of the strings, da Vinci’s string-lowering system allowed for many individual notes to be played.

Page 586r from da Vinci's Codex Atlanticus
Page 586r from da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus

Though Leonardo never saw his idea come to life, similar instruments began to show up by the 16th century. In 1575, Hans Heyden created the Geigenwerk or Streichklavier (violin factory, and string piano respectively). This incorporated many of the designs da Vinci had in mind, including the system to lower strings and the spinning wheels. More recently, one Akio Obuchi has been building his own versions. Obuchi describes the concept on his website as such:

Since 1993, I have been challenging in making Geigenwerks and a Streichklavier. The whole purpose of this effort is to realize a keyboard instrument which can produce a profile in each tone of melodic lines, by modulating dynamics and tone pitch.

In designing this violaorganista, the key concept was to imitate the sound generating principle of a violin. The violin strings are used. The bowing position and location of the bridge relative to the string length are exactly the same of those of violin. While depressing a keyboard, the corresponding string comes to contact against the rotating friction wheel, providing dynamics modulations with the finger pressure. Mechanisms which can move the strings up and down with the rotating levers are mounted on blocks similat to the tail peice of a violin.

The most recent attempt at building such an instrument comes from just last year in 2013. Slawomir Zubrzycki from Poland read about the instrument in the 1618 book Syntagma Musicum by Michael Praetorius.

Once I’d read it, I was enchanted. The instrument promised to be a revelation, it was universal, combining the best features of various types of instruments: it produced a continuous sound like an organ, it had the sound of bowed string instruments, and you could play vibrato on it. It was a unique synthesis of harpsichord, positive organ and bowed string instruments. In a typical baroque manner, Praetorius wrote that it could play urban music, rural music, it could express various feelings, and even imitate the sound of a drunken man.

Zubrzycki spent two years building the instrument and in November of 2013, the instrument was ready for concert and Zubrzycki did so in Krakow for the International Royal Cracow Piano Festival.

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