The secret of StradivariusStaff writer ▼ | Friday January 23, 2009 6:01PM ET
For centuries, violin makers have tried and failed to reproduce the pristine sound of Stradivarius and Guarneri violins, but now the mystery has been solved.
Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus of biochemistry at Texas A&M University, first theorized in 1976 that chemicals used on the instruments, not merely the wood and the construction, are responsible for the distinctive sound of these violins.
His controversial theory has now received definitive experimental support through collaboration with Renald Guillemette, director of the electron microprobe laboratory in the Department of Geology and Geophysics, and Clifford Spiegelman, professor of statistics, both Texas A&M faculty members. Their work has been published in the current issue of the scientific journal Public Library of Science ONE (PloSONE).
Nagyvary obtained minute wood samples from restorers working on Stradivarius and Guarneri instruments ("no easy trick and it took a lot of begging to get them," he adds). The results of the preliminary analysis of these samples, published in "Nature" in 2006, suggested that the wood was brutally treated by some unidentified chemicals. For the present study, the researchers burned the wood slivers to ash, the only way to obtain accurate readings for the chemical elements.
They found numerous chemicals in the wood, among them borax, fluorides, chromium and iron salts. "Borax has a long history as a preservative, going back to the ancient Egyptians, who used it in mummification and later as an insecticide," Nagyvary adds.
"The presence of these chemicals all points to collaboration between the violin makers and the local drugstore and druggist at the time. Their probable intent was to treat the wood for preservation purposes. Both Stradivari and Guarneri would have wanted to treat their violins to prevent worms from eating away the wood because worm infestations were very widespread at that time."
Antonio Stradivari (1644 - 1737) made about 1,200 violins in his lifetime and sold them only to the very rich, primarily the royalty. Today, there are about 600 Stradivarius violins remaining and they are valued at up to $5 million each. A lesser-known contemporary of Stradivari, Guarneri del Gesu, like the painter van Gogh, had trouble selling his work, but his instruments are now considered equal in quality and price by experts to Stradivarius violins. ■