Monday, November 25, 2013

Noteworthy Instruments: The Viola Organista

The outer workings of the viola organista. Photo: Tomasz Wiech/AFP

I'm sure many of you have seen the video of the viola organista as it was circulated on social media this week. The instrument, which is part of the chordophone family, is basically a harpsichord or piano whose strings are vibrated with a spinning wheel instead of plucked or struck. The spinning wheel is meant to imitate the bowing mechanic on many string instruments.

The instrument's builder and designer, Slawomir Zubrzycki, claims to have been inspired by Leonard Da Vinci's notebooks. However, lest you think this is a major breakthrough in instrument technology, it should be noted that bowed keyboard instruments have been made before, as early as 1575 by Hans Hyden and as recently as 2009. For a great essay on the background of bowed keyboard instruments, see this blogpost from The History Blog. The post also features the best video of the inner workings of the instrument, narrated (in Polish, unfortunately) by Zubrzycki. Take a look!

But wait, remember my Noteworthy Instrument post on the hurdy-gurdy? The hurdy-gurdy operates using the same principles. They both feature a rotating wheel which causes strings to vibrate. The only major differences is smaller range and lack of keyboard. And while the viola organista probably does not have a future as more than a novelty instrument, the hurdy-gurdy will continue to inspire generations to come…as a novelty instrument, too, I guess.

What did you think of the viola organista?

Vocab: chordophone, harpsichord,
keyboard, bowing

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