There has been much press hooh-hah about a bowed keyboard instrument imagined by Leonardo da Vinci and built by an enterprising Pole. But does it pass the acid test of musicology? Apparently not. Here’s a response to the American Musicological Society Discussion List from Professor Edmond Johnson in Los Angeles. Sorry, folks.
I hesitate to represent myself as any sort of expert in the history of bowed
keyboard instruments, but I think I can probably answer Prof.
Warfield’s question about “Leonardo da Vinci’s Wacky Piano.” Basically, it
appears that the instrument built by S?awomir Zubrzycki is not so much a
realization of a design by Leonardo da Vinci as it is a reconstruction of
the instrument described as a “Geigenwerk/GeigenInstrument, oder
GeigenClavicymbel” in the second volume of Michael Praetorius’s Syntagma
Musicum (pp.67-72). Praetorius credits the instrument’s invention to Hans
Haiden of Nuremberg (who had apparently built a working model as early as
1575), and a woodblock illustration of a “Nürmburgisch Geigenwerk” can be
found in Praetorius’s Theatrum Instrumentorum.
To my knowledge, only one historical example of this type of instruments
survives—a 1625 Spanish instrument by Raymundo Truchado in the collection
of the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels—but there have been previous
attempts at making modern replicas (including four different instruments by
the Japanese builder Akio Obuchi).
Now it’s certainly true that da Vinci made some sketches of a
continuously-bowed keyboard instrument (which he dubbed the “viola
organista”) , but the sketches are pretty rough, and most of them show an
action that’s quite different from the one in Zubrzycki’s instrument (which
uses the same rosin-coated wheels as Haiden’s geigenwerk). In short,
Zubrzycki’s instrument seems to me to be a nice reconstruction of a
16th-century German instrument that just happens to share some of the
characteristics of da Vinci’s imagined “viola organista” (which Haiden
almost certainly knew nothing about).
While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “a circus sideshow looking for
suckers,” I think it’s safe to say that the idea of a long-lost instrument
by Leonardo da Vinci makes for far better headlines than “Instrument by
Obscure German Reconstructed… Again.”
P.s. You can find some reproductions of the da Vinci sketches in Emanuel
Winternitz’s “Strange Musical Instruments in the Madrid Notebooks of
Leonardo da Vinci,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 2 (1969), pp. 115-126.