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
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
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.