COLLEGE STATION - Consider the Stradivarius violin.
It is prized as a work of art, it costs $2-10 million, and to music lovers, it produces a sound that is priceless - and one that has become something of a mystery.
Why does a Stradivarius sound like no other?
That has been the research focus of Texas A&M University professor Joseph Nagyvary, who is now beginning his 25th year of delving deep into the mysteries of the violin, and whose work has drawn international attention and acclaim, but also a lot of controversy. His work has included making scores of violins, many of which he and other knowledgable individuals think rival the Stradivarius sound.
The secret of the Stradivarius sound, he believes, starts with the local drug store - the 15th century type. It was there that Italian music maker Antonio Stradivari purchased chemicals used to complete his instruments, most likely upon a recommendation by the store's owner, whoever he was, who deserves much of the credit for the violin's pristine tonal quality.
In other words, Nagyvary's work has concentrated on a chemical approach to the unique Stradivarius sound.
Accordingly, the president of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world's largest scientific organization (160,000 members), will speak about Nagyvary's groundbreaking work at 6 p.m. on Feb. 12 in the Bush Conference Center during "Decoding the Stradivarius," a program honoring the Texas A&M biochemistry professor.
Dr. Attila Pavlath, head of the prestigious ACS, will discuss Nagyvary's research, and following his remarks, Zina Schiff, a concert violinist, and Nagyvary will give a demonstration of violin music on a Stradivarius and other violins, and give the audience members a "sound test" to determine if they can detect the difference in sound of the instruments.
There will also be a complete recital in which Schiff will alternate her Stradivarius with a new violin made at Texas A&M.
"Dr. Nagyvary has attacked a very interesting area by combining science with music," says Pavlath of the upcoming event.
"It's always been a mystery as to why the best violins make the greatest music. Through years of research, Dr. Nagyvary has tracked down the conditions of the wood and the substances used to treat the violins. He probably knows more about the composition of violins than anyone else in the world."
Nagyvary's 25 years of research of Stradivarius violins has produced three main reasons for its unique sound: the quality of wood used, the wood filler used along creases and seams, and the varnish applied to the finished product.
"I like to compare violin making to pies," he says.
"It's the ingredients inside a pie that makes it good or bad. The same is true for a violin. It's the materials that count."
The maple wood Stradivari used is no longer available today, Nagyvary believes, and before the maker carved his wood, he soaked it for long periods of time. Nagyvary has been able to duplicate almost exactly the same technique by using sea water and other salt solutions, and spectroscopic tests have confirmed the results.
The wood filler used by Stradivari was all-important, Nagyvary believes. "He probably used some type of fruit gum that had a crystal powder base to it," he says. "But the druggist should probably get credit there. The drug store owner's role in the sound of a Stradivarius cannot be overstated. We need to give a big cheer for all druggists!"
The last component - the varnish - probably contained particles of powdered glass, porcelain or amber to add stiffness to the wood. Fruit tree extracts were likely used, he believes, in addition to oils.
Stradivarius, Nagyvary believes, made violins that were extremely good, but not necessarily the best ever. "If he were alive today, he'd be known for his marketing skills - he created a mystique about his violins and convinced people they were the best in the world, and priced them accordingly," he adds.
Nagyvary says that a contemporary of Stradivari - Joseph Guarneri - made violins of equal or superior quality and at a fraction of the price Stradivari charged.
Stradivari (1644 to 1737) made about 1,200 violins in his lifetime and kept a large inventory of them, and would only sell one when he was ready to part with it. Today, there are only about 600 Stradivarius violins remaining, each worth millions, depending on several factors, among them who the previous owners were.
"I have enjoyed very much the past 25 years of this research because it has opened up new worlds to me," notes Nagyvary, who has become an expert violin maker himself and who took his first practice lessons on a violin belonging to Albert Einstein.
"I am proud to say that I was the first chemist to apply modern analytical methods and define the makeup of these great violins. And it's satisfying to know that the American Chemical Society has confirmed my research and my basic premise - that chemicals are the prominent reason why a Stradivarius has such a distinct sound."
Contact: Keith Randall at (979) 845-4644 or Joseph Nagyvary at (979) 845-1781.