Stradivarius Mystery Examined
By Douglass Dowty

The 500 year-old pedestal from which violinmaker Antonio Stradivarius has ruled as the best luthier in history may soon crumble under evidence suggesting that his genius was, in fact, a fortunate accident.
Joseph Nagyvary, a chemistry professor at Texas A&M, lectured on the “Mysteries of the Stradivarius” to a large crowd of Connies, chemistry students and local violinmakers in Kulas last Wednesday. The event was sponsored by the Chemistry Department.
Professor Nagyvary has spent the better part of 20 years unraveling the mysteries behind the divine Strad, whose instruments have been played by Medieval kings, court musicians of the Renaissance and Romantic eras, and globe-trotting soloists of today such as Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma, who plays one of Strad’s few cello efforts.
“A violin is made by the chemical makeup of the instrument, like a Texas barbecue is made of the meat and the barbecue sauce,” Nagyvary said. He explained that Stradivarius violins have numerous patches and repairs that were made in the five centuries since the maker released his work into the world. “If you have good meat, you can cut it, slice it and it will still be good meat,” he pointed out, alluding to the way wood was prepared in Stradivarius’s day.
It can be proven scientifically that Strad’s are the best violins. “Physicists do not want to put a violinist into their experiments," Nagyvary said. “They hook wires to [a violin] and read the vibrations. They shake it.”
A Strad violin produces the most focused tone between 2000-4000 Megahertz, known as the “operatic peak.” This is the normal range of human hearing. A cheap factory violin, on the other hand, will have a similar peak of sound around 1500 MHz, letting off a nasal sound when played in the operatic peak. Most good violins today will have a peak somewhere between the two, in other words, between factory quality and a Strad.
According to Nagyvary, much more than the maker’s craft goes into a good violin. “You can replicate the exact thickness of a Strad violin, and make a bad violin,” he said, pointing to a diagram overhead that showed the exact thickness of the back panel of one of Stradivarius’s instruments.
He claimed that the “secret” behind the Cremona-made violins is, in fact, not the craftsmanship at all.
“Today, violinmakers get their wood in truck shipments that have been dried for up to 30 years before they are used,” he said. “But this was not the way it was done in 17th century Italy.”
The wood, in fact, had to be floated down sea channels from the wilderness, where it was collected in Venice and distributed to luthiers, still wet from salt water.
Nagyvary said that this submersion in salt solution is an important piece of the puzzle. “Nobody today wants to do this,” he said. “They dry their wood for 30 years and then a scientist comes in and tells them to soak it in water." This process, however, changes the microstructure of the wood in a way that cannot be done otherwise.
Another element in the equation is the antiquated methods that were common in the 17th-century for preserving timber. To keep mold from forming on the surface, arsenic and borax, an early insecticide, were rubbed into the wood.
A mucilage, literally meaning "slime," was applied in various flavors from the chemist at the drugstore where it was sold as an ingredient for candies of the time. This sealed the wood as an early varnish. Tests have revealed that a Strad violin may contain up to 12 flavors of mucilage varnish.
The credit for Stradivarius’s success, then, according to Nagyvary, should be attributed more to the chemical advances of the time than some sort of divine inspiration that many claim.
"Chemists and materials are the secret behind the Cremona sound," he said. "The ‘lost secret’ was never possessed by the luthiers."
"There are many ways to make a beautiful sounding instrument," he added, perhaps to keep peace with the majority of violinmakers who do not buy into the scientific findings of Strad’s violins. "I have seen many instruments that do not use any of my techniques that sound wonderful."
Nagyvary is now a violinmaker himself. "My colleagues told me that at age 23 it was too late to learn to play the violin," he said, laughing. He only uses wood that has been soaked, as in Strad’s day, in a salt water solution and puts a mucilage varnish on the instruments. His approach is obviously focused on the scientific aspect of the operation, and he "outsources" much of the making.
"I do the final carving and the varnish," Nagyvary said.
Upon his retirement, he wants to make as many violins as possible, in what he believes is the real style of Stradivarius.
Following the lecture, a short recital was given by Conservatory senior Julia Sakharova, on an older Italian instrument from the era of Strad as well as a new instrument of Nagyvary’s.


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