The invention of the piano-viole is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, who left three sketches of a « viola organista » in his notebooks of 1493-1495.  In the following centuries several instrument makers tried to build an instrument where the keys, instead of being struck (piano) or plucked (clavecin), were played with a bow.  Few succeeded and only a few rare examples are preserved in the world.  The oldest known instrument, built in 1625 by a Spanish monk Raymundo Truchado, is on view in the MIM in the "Western Classical Music" room (level +2).

At the beginning of the 1830s, one of the most talented Brussels piano builders, Herman Lichtenthal (Silesia/Poland? 1795 - Saint-Petersburg 1853), also tried his hand at this adventure.  In 1835 he displayed a prototype at the first Exposition nationale du Royaume de Belgique in Brussels. Visitors were thrilled, the press was enthusiastic and Lichtenthal obtained a gold medal, the highest honour.  King Leopold I, visiting the exhibition, was also won over and bought a model.  The instrument worked for a while, but then the mechanism jammed.  Lichtenthal had meanwhile moved to Saint-Petersburg and could not immediately repair the instrument.  The piano-viole was therefore moved to the Palace attics.

150 years later, the MIM was contacted by the curator of the royal collections who had discovered several instruments which appeared interesting, including the piano-viole. Deposited at the MIM, it was given a patient and delicate restoration for almost two years.  A large number of the parts of the mechanism had been lost or destroyed over the years, while the patents deposited by Lichtenthal were missing.  A copy of one of the patents was eventually found in a New York library.  On this basis, assisted by the school of musical instrument-making attached to the University of Gent (Hogeschool Gent), the engineering faculty of UCL, the Delvaux company and various instrument makers, Pierre Gevaert, keyboard instrument restorer at the MIM, was able to bring the piano-viole back to life.  Thus, music lovers of today can enjoy its hybrid sound, which falls mid-way between the organ and the viola da gamba.

Piano-viole, Herman Lichtenthal, Brussels, c. 1835
Piano-viole, Herman Lichtenthal, Brussels, c. 1835
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