Saturday, May 13, 2017

Leonardo da Vinci: Inventor of Musical Instruments

Well, one anyway. A Polish instrument builder named Sławomir Zubrzycki has delved into the Codex Atlanticus, a 1200 page compendium of Leonardo's notes, to find described a fascinating musical instrument with a keyboard like a harpsichord, but using rotating wheels covered with horsehair to sound the strings, allowing for sustained notes. Here, from Classic FM, is a clip. The interview is in Polish, but you get to hear the instrument.


What fascinates me, wearing my musicology hat, is that he chooses the Folias de Espagne by Marais, to demonstrate the sound of the instrument. This is a composition dating from the late 17th century used to demonstrate an instrument envisioned by Leonardo in the late 15th, early 16th century. This reminds me of the old joke: a musicologist is someone who can perform a piece of 18th century music using 15th century ornaments!

Now let me offer an historical critique. The musical instrument that Leonardo might have been thinking of is the hurdy gurdy, a venerably ancient instrument whose strings are sounded with a rotating wheel, just as in this case. The difference is the addition of a keyboard, which was present in various forms of the organ in Leonardo's time. Now, the question is, did Leonardo think of putting them together, or was it our Polish friend? We really need to see those excerpts from the original notes of Leonardo to know. Here is are some photos of the hurdy gurdy:

Medieval hurdy gurdy

Later form of hurdy gurdy
As you can see, both these models have little primitive keyboards.

2 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

The hurdy-gurdy Wiki article is fascinating, from the organistrum to the Catalan viola de roda, all of it. My recollection (from being interested in this briefly a year or more ago) is that there are one or two other 'inventors' of viola organista-like instruments, one Japanese, one Dutch, who claim priority in time before Dr Zubrzycki. Hmm. I just looked at Wiki, at viola organista; as usual my recollections are partly right, partly wrong, generally confused. :-) It doesn't seem doubtful that Leonardo 'thought of putting them together'-- the open question perhaps is how closely Zubrzycki's machine resembles Leonardo's designs.

Bryan Townsend said...

Ah yes, very likely!