It’s not very often that a story from the rarefied world of early music goes viral, but Sławomir Zubrzycki, a concert pianist and instrument maker from Krakow, has recently captured the world’s attention by building an instrument first sketched by Leonardo da Vinci, known as the ‘viola organista.’ As Zubrzycki describes it: “This instrument has the characteristics of three we know: the harpsichord, the organ and the viola da gamba.”
But it’s not merely a historical curiosity and a mechanical wonder; the viola organista has a marvelously unique sound all its own that might just make it popular with musicians today – if they can ever get their hands on one. I recently sat down with Zubrzycki over coffee to ask him a few questions.
Are you surprised by the enormous media interest that your work has generated?
The news has its own laws of course, but it flattens the story out a bit. Leonardo is what the media have noticed, and while I have clearly been guided by his sketches, I’m also guided by the later course of the instrument’s development, which is just as interesting as Leonardo but doesn’t involve quite such famous names.
Sławomir Zubrzycki plays his viola organista (Photo: S. Krok)
This instrument was rejected and forgotten multiple times, in spite of the great name attached to it. But perhaps today, thanks to the media and the internet, we have a chance to reverse this trend. Da Vinci is a kind of symbol, and perhaps he is helping a bit from beyond the grave to remind us of his idea, because sketches are sketches – one finds there certain solutions – but it was never actually constructed.
I’ve built historical instruments before, but building the viola organista was a much bigger challenge than merely copying an already existing instrument. So I would like to honor the entire fascinating history, and appreciate all of the instruments that arose before. This has obviously been helped along by the increased interest in Leonardo da Vinci – thanks, in no small part, to the unfortunate Dan Brown – but let’s put that book on another shelf.
A few scholars – notably Norman Lebrecht – have made the same point about the complex origins of this instrument, pointing to the tremendous work of other instrument builders, but phrased as an accusation. Some say this is not Leonardo’s instrument at all. Sour grapes?
I would answer, simply: have they seen the flying machine designed by Leonaro da Vinci? Would they rather fly in that, or one produced by Boeing or Airbus? Sketches are not the finished product.
Will the public have a chance to hear the viola organista again soon?
Yes, I think so. I’ve received proposals from festivals both in Poland and abroad, so I’m quite certain that there will be opportunities to hear it again soon. I’ve received messages from composers who would like to write for the viola organista, which I think is a great opportunity, because as it stands, I’ve found only one piece written for this type of instrument, written in the 18th century, by CPE Bach. So I will be waiting for new pieces that are a good fit, because I don’t want to play pieces that rehash the standard tropes of 20th century music – clusters and the like. I play that kind of thing on the piano, happily, but on the viol one must think more harmonically.
You’ve anticipated my next question: do you see a role for your instrument in new music? You’ve mentioned classical composers. What other kinds of musicians have expressed an interest in making use of it? Rock stars? Electronic musicians?
Yes, indeed. Kazimierz Pyzik, a composer and string player from Krakow, who initially suggested I build this instrument, is already working on several new compositions. There was even a proposal from a well-known heavy metal band. I declined – excuse me, I’m not really so much at home in the world of popular music.
Meanwhile, I was also contacted by Björk’s manager, who said she would like to come and see it. This I accepted – her work is really quite interesting. Of course, there has also been great interest among hurdy-gurdy players. So I look forward to making the acquaintance of all sorts of talented musicians.