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Coriere Della Sera
The Huffington Post
Powszechny ......Sept.29, 2013
DA VINCI TONE
The instrument promised to be a revelation from the very
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
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
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
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
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
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 -
Is it playable?
It is unfortunately completely dumb: it can't produce any
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Do you intend to build more violas
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
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