The first time anyone has ever heard Leonardo Da Vinci’s Viola Organista … by Jennifer Doak-Mathewson
It supposedly takes three weeks to create a habit. Malcolm Gladwell argues that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. But how long should you spend on a labor of love?
For Polish concert pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki, it took 5,000 hours to painstakingly recreate an instrument called the viola organista, detailed directions for which were left in a volume of Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus 494 years ago. He debuted the instrument in Krakow earlier this year.
Da Vinci was known for a multitude of inventions and deep knowledge of several subjects, many of which had a practical application. But old Leonardo was at heart an artist, and the viola organista was among his more fanciful inventions.
Zubrzycki’s performance was the first recorded instance of anyone creating and playing the viola organista. Its system of revolving horsehair-covered wheels and steel strings, detailed here, are hidden in a beautiful exterior that resembles a grand piano.
While some of da Vinci’s inventions would prove unworkable in reality, the viola organista produces a lovely dark, rich sound, somewhere between a harpsichord and a pair of violas. Have a listen:
The sound is gorgeous, but what makes the instrument all the more beautiful is that it was a concept that was dreamed up, set aside for several centuries, and resurrected—with much trial and error, we can be sure—to its full realization by an artist passionate about bringing a few sketches into reality. Da Vinci could only imagine what the instrument would sound like; we no longer have to.
On the inside of the viola organista’s lid is a Latin quote by 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.”