Sławomir Zubrzycki

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Tygodnik Powszechny ......Sept.29, 2013

THE DA VINCI TONE


Sławomir Zubrzycki:
The instrument promised to be a revelation from the very beginning.
According to Praetorius, the viola organista could play urban music, rural music, it could express various feelings, and even imitate the sound of a drunken man.

JACEK ¦LUSARCZYK:
At the time of The Da Vinci Code's stunning success, everything related to Leonardo da Vinci is a great sensation. How did you come across the topic of a long-lost instrument invented by Leonardo?

SŁAWOMIR ZUBRZYCKI: I first encountered the idea of this instrument through a Polish story. My friend Kazimierz Pyzik, a musician and music theorist, with whom I have been plaing modern music for the past 20 years, told me about a peculiar instrument, which was built in the 1830s in the Łańcut area. The instrument was called a "claviolin" or "hunched piano". It was built by Father Jan Jarmusiewicz - an unconventional figure, a music theorist and member of musical societies in Lviv and Vienna. Unfortunately, the instrument hasn't survived - only its short description remained in the Kurier Warszawski newspaper. I was moved by the information that the claviolin had a unique feature: by playing the keyboard like a pianist, you could make the sounds of bowed string instruments. However, in the early 1990s I became interested in another instrument - the clavichord.

Have you built a clavichord?

Yes. In 1992 I made a copy of Johann Silbermann's great clavichord from 1775, which is preserved in Nuremberg. Many people, even those dealing with early music, thought it was a bad idea: why build an instrument on which it is impossible to play a concert, because it is too quiet? But once I'd built it, I discovered one of the secrets of music.

The clavichord has five centuries of history, but this history ends dramatically - it gets rejected. It is a quiet but extremely expressive instrument. When I play it - and I often do it when I'm alone at home, usually in the evening, when a person is more in the mood for softer sounds, when it is generally quieter - I can feel that this quiet instrument begins to speak in its full voice. You need nothing more: no showing off. This intimate situation - which is a model for me - was later replaced with a recital, a concert, a show of virtuosity.

I am a concert pianist and, of course, a show is a part of my profession. My repertoire consists mainly of 19th-century music and some compositions from the 18th century. I also often perform modern music. At some point, I discovered the need to find something else that is not a loud emotion, but a discreet state of calm, an immersion in music.

You combine passion and interest in musical peculiarities with a need to experience something "so completely different".

Yes, indeed! When I came across Father Jarmusiewicz's claviolin, I started intensive research and soon found some historical materials which were absolutely sensational for me. I realised that this instrument had been invented, named "viola organista" and sketched by Leonardo da Vinci himself! The sketch and drawings, described with Leonardo's characteristic mirror writing, are included in the Codex Atlanticus, the largest set of his notes from the years 1489-1492, comprising over a thousand pages. The Codex is currently stored in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. It also contains drawings of prototypes of siege engines, a submarine, a hang-glider and an automobile. Leonardo's design is an outline of a construction concept for a bowed string instrument which at the same time is a keyboard instrument.

Over time, I discovered that the first ever maker of viola organistas, then called the Geigenwerk, was Hans Haiden, an artisan from Nuremberg. Sources give various numbers of the instruments he built; some say he made as many as 32 instruments, but in fact only two are documented: the first from 1570 and a revised model from 1600. None of them has survived. So there is a recurring theme in this instrument's history of it falling into oblivion.

The only surviving instrument was made in 1625, on the model of Haiden's viola, by a Spanish craftsman, Raymundo Truchado. It is preserved in the Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels.

Have you seen it?

Yes, I have examined it in detail and made many photos of it. In a way I did it illegally, because I crossed the barriers separating the exhibit from the visitors. I didn't like this instrument at all. To put it bluntly - it's ugly.

Is it playable?

It is unfortunately completely dumb: it can't produce any sound.

I found out that it was probably made for the royal court in Spain, and since it was intended for royal children, it's a little weird - the keyboard is at the height of a very low stool. Moreover, it's not driven in the same way as Haiden's instrument, but by a crank at the back. This is not a good solution.

A description of Haiden's instrument with its sound characteristics and musical properties is contained in Syntagma Musicum by Michael Praetorius, published in 1618. 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. I then realised that this was a unique situation: I would be able to play a repertoire which is practically unavailable to a pianist - the works of the great literature for viola da gamba [the viola da gamba was the predecessor of the cello - ed.].

The film Tous les matins du monde by Alain Corneau has been a very important musical and spiritual experience for me. There is a beautiful and moving scene in the film when the great master of the viola da gamba, Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, builds a solitary place for himself in his garden, he puts a table and chair there, he puts a cup of wine on the table and starts playing on the viola da gamba - and his music begins to enter a completely different, heavenly dimension.

Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe wants to evoke his late, beloved wife through his art...

...and she comes to him in the end! There's extraordinary metaphysics in this film. And that wonderful viola sound, when music can express what is inexpressible, but deeply felt...


For nearly two centuries, music written for the viola da gamba was unavailable to us in its original tone: viola da gambas were forgotten, driven out by cellos for a long time. It is only thanks to Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Wieland Kuijken, and above all Jordi Savall, that we began to delight in the subtlety of this instrument's sounds. We have discovered anew the music of Marin Marais and Sainte-Colombe, as well as Bach's suites and works by Forqueray...

Exactly! Someone has brought the viola da gamba back to life! The fact that the viola organista was rejected and forgotten, but every now and then someone returned to it, and then it fell into oblivion again, was extremely motivating for me. When I started thinking about building it anew, I was full of enthusiasm; it became a real obsession for me. Frankly speaking, I went completely crazy.


What was the greatest difficulty during the making of the instrument?

The fact that I didn't have access to any historical examples and that I couldn't hear the sound of the instrument.

In my reconstruction work, I followed three clues. The first was an idea about its sound; the second - an idea about the potential repertoire, which would have to be almost completely recreated. Only then could I think about the structure of the instrument. On the basis of the photos and descriptions, I decided that I would apply the harpsichord form, that is a wing form (as there were table-type instruments, such as virginals or clavichords in a rectangular shape, and there were wing formed ones, such as the modern grand piano or harpsichord, where you open a top board which is in the shape of a wing).

It was obvious to me that the instrument had to look like Haiden's instrument. All of those built later had the appearance of either a harpsichord or a grand piano, hence the name "bowed string piano".

I thought that the sound had to be similar to the viola da gamba, but that it could also enter the range of the organ or wind instruments' tone slightly. I used metal strings: I gave up on gut strings, as did many of the other builders in the early stages of the development of this instrument. It is impossible to control 61 gut strings during a concert - with changing humidity, this instrument goes out of tune fast, whereas you can relatively quickly tune the seven strings of the viola da gamba.

First, I built a small model in which I used only a part of the instrument's register. I created the concept of this instrument's resonance using some pioneering solutions.

What solutions?

I have my little secrets...

I had to answer some important questions: what were the weaknesses of this instrument? Am I brave enough to go my own way? Because if this instrument never found its master, a Stradivarius, Ruckers or Steinway, and it has got lost many times throughout history, this means that there has been something ill-fated about it.

Certainly, one of its negative features was the tendency to go out of tune. I found a document from 1665 which says that the instrument was brought to a post office, where a concert was to take place. It turned out that the instrument went out of tune quickly and was impossible to play; and, moreover, it sounded so bad that one of the string musicians commented: "If any of my students made such sounds on the viola, I would kick him out."

The cause of its going out of tune so quickly was probably the use of gut strings, although there could have also been some problems with steel ones. The second flaw was the already mentioned quietness of the sound. I hope that mine is loud enough.

It sounds much louder than a viola da gamba.

I have the same impression, but I would have to try it out in a large concert hall, of course.

The design is very complicated with its system of circular bows. Father Jarmusiewicz called it an "hunched piano", because the strings are not placed flat, as in the piano or harpsichord, but in "hunches", so they can surround a circular bow. In my instrument there are four bows, whereas Haiden had five bows; the Spanish construction by Raymundo Truchado and Jarmusiewicz's claviolin had four bows. I think that four is a good number: there are four directions of the world, four instruments in a string quartet...

How long did the process of building the instrument last?

I started it in 2009. Of course, I didn't work on it all the time, as I work professionally as a concert pianist and teacher in music schools. Nevertheless, I set myself a rigorous pace of work, which allowed me to overcome many difficulties, especially the technological ones, related to the various techniques of woodworking and metalworking, construction and acoustics. Also, I was acquiring materials related to the design of the piano and bowed string instruments, although nobody from the clan of luthiers wanted to reveal their secrets, and it is difficult to find literature on the subject.

As a result you have created a truly remarkable instrument with an amazing sound.

Thank you for such a favourable review. When I was building it, I did have some moments of doubt. When the sound appeared, there were also some difficulties: many strings turned out to be poorly selected. I had a particular problem with the bass register, which had seemed a simple issue to me at the beginning. I relied heavily on my intuition.

Jordi Savall - one of the first people to discover the long forgotten viola da gamba for themselves and for the public, who couldn't learn from any masters, because there were none - has always emphasised the role of intuition. And he did so despite the fact that the viola da gamba has a great and beautiful history, and you can find many historical descriptions of it.

In the case of the viola organista, there is very little information available. I have been incredibly lucky to work on this project today, as almost everything is available and described.

Have there been any compositions for this instrument?

So far, I have found only one piece, written by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the son of Johann Sebastian. We know that he composed for the instrument known in Prussia as the Bogeclavier (bowed string piano), which was built in 1753 by a certain Johann Hohlfeld. Bach's son composed the Sonata in G major H 280, after he had met Hohlfeld at the Prussian court. He familiarised himself with Hohlfeld's instrument and described it in his treatise on keyboard instruments, expressing his regret that this instrument was so uncommon.

I managed to identify this particular sonata, although with some difficulties: theoretically, they were all available on the Internet, but I couldn't find this one. Finally, I turned to my own library and found it among my music scores. It was a very nice feeling...

Bogenclavier, Geigenwerk, claviolin, hunched piano, bowed string piano - there are a lot of different names. What made you use its first and original name "viola organista"?

I often wondered what name I would use. I thought about the bowed string piano for a while, but when I finally started to play it, I decided that "viola organista", the name coined by Leonardo da Vinci, is the most appropriate of all. It perfectly characterises the instrument's sound.

Speaking in more detail about the characteristics of this sound, the viola da gamba appears very clearly in the low and middle registers, whereas in the upper register you can find some elements of a small positive organ. Also, depending on the texture and playing technique, there are either some features of strings, or of the organ.

Have you found any signs of interest in this instrument in the 19th century, or did it again fall into oblivion?

Yes, I have found a trace. I was very surprised when I read about an artistic voyage of the brilliant pianist and composer Franz Liszt. During one of his tours, Liszt gave some concerts in a town in East Prussia, where he learned about a bowed string piano, which he had not heard about before. He wanted to see the instrument and try it out. It turned out that its owner had died and the owner's heirs had sold the instrument. People believed that it was still in the town, but nobody could find it. So in the end Liszt didn't get the chance to play or even see it.

It's an interesting story. Apparently, the constructor of this instrument, which was built in 1790, was a certain cleric. I suspect that he was a Protestant pastor, biographer, table companion and friend of a famous philosopher. This famous philosopher probably knew about this instrument or even listened to it. The pastor's name was Wasiański (some Polish roots may be here), the town's name was Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), and the philosopher's name was Immanuel Kant.

It is known that Father Wasiański created two instruments with his partner: one was sold to Warsaw and there's no trace of it; the other remained in Königsberg and could have been played by Liszt, if he had found it.

Later, this instrument became part of the Prussian collection in Berlin, which was bombed on one occasion (there have been many such occasions in Europe). It was considered to be a very good instrument, better than earlier models, but quiet.

In 2004, a Japanese constructor, Akio Obuchi, built and presented a viola organista which is a direct implementation of the original Leonardo da Vinci's concept. I have watched a few videos presenting this instrument on YouTube and must confess that I am disappointed: Obuchi's instrument is only a historical curiosity.

Well, Akio Obuchi is a builder of early instruments and definitely has a lot of experience, but he is not a musician and he sometimes seems to have lost direction in his projects. He created several versions of this instrument and in each case he was looking for something else. However, to his credit, he published descriptions of these instruments revealing their many flaws. In my opinion, some of his solutions are inappropriate, even from a historical point of view: Obuchi doesn't take advantage of Hans Haiden's design ideas, which are available thanks to the instrument preserved in Brussels.


Now you are in the special situation of determining a canon of repertoire for this instrument. From what I see, you intuitively turn to the 17th and 18th-century viola da gamba literature.

Playing the viola organista requires a bowed string thinking in bowed string categories. I am pleased that as a pianist I have managed to enter the world of bowed string musicians through the backdoor.

Fortunately, I came across the compositions of Antoine Forqueray and their harpsichord arrangements by his son, Jean Baptiste Antoine Forqueray. This discovery seems to me to be crucial for the creation of the repertoire, because here we are dealing with a father who wrote for the viola da gamba, and his son, who arranged his father's music on the harpsichord, fashionable in Paris at the time. Because the son did it, I believe this is the most reliable transposition.

I have followed this path: I adapted the harpsichord arrangement for my viola organista, as if recreating what the father wrote. It's a bit of a historical joke. The son adapted his father's pieces for the harpsichord, and then I converted them back to make them sound, I hope, very similar to the original. In Canada, there are also some interesting harpsichord arrangements of French viola da gamba virtuosos, Saint-Colombe and Marin Marais. These arrangements do not require many changes to transpose them for the viola organista. The problem is the playing technique, which in fact has to be recreated from scratch.

Perhaps Kazimierz Pyzik will enrich my repertoire. I made him an offer he can't refuse: he has to write an aria accompanied by the viola organista for me. The aria will be a part of the oratory which is being composed for texts from Qumran.

What are your immediate plans with this instrument?

First of all, I have to play it a lot and observe how it behaves in different situations. It is still a prototype, so I need to check how the various mechanisms work. Perhaps some adjustments will have to be made. If there is interest in this instrument, and the public acquires a taste for its specific tone, it would mean breaking the run of bad historical luck. I believe that times we live in may be most gracious for the viola organista.

The repertoire can be extended to include some baroque organ music, but in spite of all the tonal similarities to the viola da gamba and the organ, I believe that this instrument is tonally autonomous. On the model that I created at the early stages of my research, I noticed great expressive possibilities: I observed that along with the change in the bow speed, there is a beautiful opening, a rounded, deep sound. In the lower registers this rounding is larger, in the higher register the sound is simpler, but there is also the possibility to play vibrato.

Do you intend to build more violas organistas?

Speaking not quite seriously: if the audience accepts this instrument, if it works, then, of course, it would be possible. In my mind, I see myself as the owner of a small 19th-century style manufactory, definitely with a smoking chimney.

But seriously speaking, I'm surprised by recent developments. I was hoping that it would work, otherwise I wouldn't have invested almost four years on a utopian project. During my work, some well-meaning people asked me with true concern: what if you fail? And I would answer: you should watch Zorba the Greek - have you ever seen such a beautiful disaster?

Interview by JACEK ¦LUSARCZYK

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(c) Sławomir Zubrzycki 2014

slawomir@zubrzycki.art.pl