Scientists Learns Secrets of Strad Violin

ByLee Dye

March 28 -- It's likely that even Joseph Nagyvary doesn't know exactly when the obsession began to take over his life.

Perhaps it goes back to 1957, when as a young Hungarian refugee in Switzerland he was allowed to take lessons on Albert Einstein's old violin. Or perhaps it was the first time he heard the extraordinary tones of a Stradivarius violin, and began to wonder why the work of one craftsman has not been surpassed in more than two centuries.

He admits he never became a great violinist. "I only play the slow tunes," he quips.

But he thinks he has discovered the secrets that allowed Antonio Stradivari to turn out such incredible instruments in his shop in Cremona, Italy.

The old master himself probably never understood all of those secrets, Nagyvary says, and that's the reason his craftsmanship died with him in 1737. He didn't know exactly what to pass on to his sons.

Bug-Free Wood

Many years ago Nagyvary turned his attention to science. He is now a biochemist at Texas A&M University, where he has researched such things as nucleic acids and cancer, but the 66-year-old professor never gave up on his first love.

For more than a quarter of a century, he has published dozens of papers explaining his theories about Stradivari. He even makes his own violins, which many experts say rival those of the old master.

Nagyvary says he began traveling down that long road in the 1960s, while he was in northern Italy. He noticed that wood artifacts in museums from the early 18th century frequently showed damage from wood-boring insects. They looked like "Swiss cheese," he says.

"But I discovered that [wooden objects from] the cities of Cremona and Venice had no, or very little, wood infestation from that period," he says.

It seemed clear to Nagyvary that someone in Cremona had come up with some way of protecting wood from the insects, and the technique was used by everybody who worked with wood, including Stradivari.

Nagyvary began experimenting with all types of preservatives, including borax. It seemed likely that borax would have been used because it was known as an insecticide long before the 18th century.

And borax would do something else. As a chemist, Nagyvary knew borax would act as a "cross linker," meaning it would bind different molecules together as it filled in the tiny pores in the wood.

"Just by adding a little borax to the wood, you can make the wood much harder and stronger," he says. That, in turn, has "a profound effect" on its acoustical properties, he adds.

That, however, was an unexpected fringe benefit that nobody really understood in the 18th century.

"They had no idea it would improve the sound," Nagyvary says.

After about 50 years, the infestation across northern Italy came to an end, and there was no longer any need to use the preservative, Nagyvary says. Thus, just about the time that Stradivari closed up his shop for the last time, the quality of the wood changed, because it was no longer chemically treated. Most likely, Nagyvary thinks, no one even realized at the time that violin making was about to take a dive.

Soaked Sounds Better

Of course, that's not all there was to it. New types of wood finishes were coming along, and they made the violins shiny but less acoustical than the finishes that had been used by Stradivari, thus bumping his instruments up another notch on the musical scale.

Nagyvary believes the wood used by Stradivari was soaked for a long time before it was carved, and again that could have been an inadvertent blessing.

"There is a lot of historical evidence that all the logs [used for woodworking] came down the waterway, and they were stored in the Bay of Venice, sometimes for a very long period of time," Nagyvary says.

He says he has experimented with logs that have been stored in water and found them superior in every way for violin construction.

"The sound is clearer, the weight is lighter," he says.

Many other factors also figured into Stradivari's success, Nagyvary says. But in the final analysis, the old master had another ace up his sleeve.

He knew merchandizing, Nagyvary says.

"He sold his violins only to kings and dukes and bishops," he says. "They were maintained by the best repairmen. They were adjusted regularly. They were always played by good players."

More than just building a better violin, "he invented the violin as an investment property," Nagyvary says. One key factor in determining the value of a Strad today is simply who owned it in the past, so there is more at work here than craftsmanship.

That all may sound a bit blasphemous, but if turning out a better violin is just a matter of craftsmanship, why can't more people do it? There are many experts who can carve wood to a remarkable level of precision, yet few claim to match the quality of a Strad.

Creating Close Matches

Nagyvary himself has become a successful violin maker, using the techniques he believes made the Stradivarius something really special. His violins sell for up to $15,000 and have won endorsements from violinists in some of the world's leading orchestras. That's one way he has supported his research.

But is he a "genius?"

"My best violin was made with a computer-directed carving machine," he says. "I'm no genius."Still, according to some experts, he turns out a heck of a fiddle.

During the recent symposium in Texas, noted violinist Zina Schiff played both a Stradivarius and a violin made by Nagyvary, switching back and forth throughout the concert. She said later she doubted that anyone there could tell the difference.

"It certainly can equal the power and the beautiful sounds of the 300-year-old instrument," she said of the Nagyvary violin.

By the way, nothing in Nagyvary's research should diminish Antonio Stradivari. He is considered the designer of the modern violin, and in the right hands, one of his instruments can still make a strong man weep.

Two and a half centuries later, we're still trying to figure out how he did it.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.