Just yesterday, we made reference to Leonardo da Vinci’s contribution to early concepts of mechanical calculation. But if that subset of his achievements doesn’t interest you, may we suggest you look into his other work in painting, sculpture, architecture, mathematics, engineering, anatomy, geology, cartography, botany, and letters? Then again, you might find this a particularly opportune time to learn more about Leonardo da Vinci the musician. As the archetypal example of the polymathic, intellectually omnivorous “Renaissance man,” he not only attained mastery of a wide range of disciplines, but did his most impressive work in the spaces between them. Given the voluminousness of his output (not to mention the technical limitations of fifteenth-century Europe), many of his multiple domain-spanning ideas and inventions never became a reality during his lifetime. However, just this year, 494 years after Leonardo’s death, we now have the chance to see, and more importantly hear, one of them: the viola organista, an elaborate musical instrument that had previously only existed in his notebooks.
We owe this thrill not just to Leonardo himself, who left behind detailed plans for the (to him, purely theoretical) construction of such devices as this behind, but to a reported 5000 hours of physical effort by Polish concert pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki, who actually put the thing together. You can read more at the Sydney Morning Herald, whose article (on “Leonardo Da Vinci’s wacky piano“) quotes Zubrzycki: “This instrument has the characteristics of three we know: the harpsichord, the organ and the viola da gamba,” and playing it, which involves hitting keys connected to “spinning wheels wrapped in horse-tail hair,” and turning those wheels by pumping a pedal below the keyboard, produces exciting unusual waves of cello-like sounds. You can watch ten minutes of Zubrzycki debuting the instrument at Krakow’s Academy of Music above. Depending upon your inclination toward music, very old technology, or very old music technology, you may also want to glance at the related Metafilter debate about what place the viola organista could have in music today.