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Stradivari's Secret

A cranky biochemist named Joseph Nagyvary claims to make violins that sounds as magnifient as the legendary Cremonese master's - and sells them at a fraction of the cost. So why aren't musicians flocking to buy them?

By Michael D Lemonick
Jul 1, 2000 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:27 AM


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You don't hang out for long with Joseph Nagyvary before you're faced with an uncomfortable thought: Is the man a genius or a crank?

He certainly bears some of the telltale marks of crankdom. For one thing, he's a monomaniac. Give him the slightest opening, and he'll talk for hours about his research, branching off into tributaries of arcana so narrow and obscure it seems he couldn't possibly find a rhetorical way out. Then, too, he's certain that jealous enemies are conspiring to keep his revolutionary discovery from gaining the respect it deserves. And as with most scientific cranks who claim to have solved a big problem—like discovering an unlimited source of cheap energy—Nagyvary is convinced he has solved an age-old riddle: Why are violins made by Antonio Stradivari, the legendary 18th-century Cremonese instrument maker, so dramatically better than anything built since?

Yet for all of Nagyvary's pretensions to crankdom, one fact counteracts all appearances: He does make extraordinary violins, violas, and cellos. Indeed, the instruments this biochemistry professor builds have been purchased for as much as $15,000 apiece and reviewed favorably by members of the Cleveland Quartet, Chicago Symphony, and New York Philharmonic. Yehudi Menuhin played one, on loan from Nagyvary, for 15 years. Still, no one has ever found a satisfactory explanation for the transcendently beautiful sounds that come from the violins made by Stradivari and his Cremonese contemporaries Nicolò Amati and Giuseppe Guarneri—and it isn't for want of trying. Instrument makers have patiently disassembled their violins, calibrated every dimension of the pieces to the hundredth of an inch, and replicated the measurements perfectly in new instruments, yet failed to duplicate the magic. Physicists have used lab equipment to analyze the vibrational patterns of Stradivari front and back plates, the big pieces of wood that generate most of a violin's sound, and had craftsmen carve new plates that faithfully reproduce the patterns, all to no avail. Chemists have cooked up elaborate recipes for the varnish that coats and colors a violin's raw maple and spruce, assuming it's the icing on the cake that counts. Again, no luck.

Yet Nagyvary's theories suggest the chemists were closest to the truth. It is the varnish, he says, along with the specially treated spruce used to craft the tops of the instruments, that makes Cremonese violins great. And neither had much to do with Stradivari himself. The local lumberman just happened to supply him with the ideal wood, and the local apothecary with the perfect varnish. "Stradivari was a marvelous craftsman," Nagyvary observes, "but the magnificent sound of his instruments is a lucky accident."

At the fringe of the Texas A&M campus in College Station where Nagyvary teaches, near pastures populated by sheep and cows, stands a modest, faded white bungalow. Here, where decades ago biochemist Raymond Reiser did pioneering work tracing the absorption of fat through the intestines, Nagyvary has experimented tirelessly for two decades. Trying to re-create the fortuitous conditions that produced extraordinary violins in the past, he has soaked wood in preservative chemical baths mixed in an old galvanized trough and endlessly tinkered with plant and animal extracts for varnish makings.

"I used to hang the violins on a clothesline outside the lab," he says, leading the way through the small rooms. "But every so often a bull would get loose, and I was afraid one would charge my instruments." Here Nagyvary and physicist Robert Kenefick have played Nagyvary's violins against borrowed Strads or Guarneris, note by note, to see how they differ. "I'm not a great violinist myself," says Nagyvary, standing in a chamber filled with noise-deadening foam rubber and equipped with microphones wired to a sound analyzer. "But in order to make our measurements consistent, I have worked to become one of the greatest single-note players in the world."

From the extensive database they've now compiled, says Nagyvary, they can tell a great violin from a mediocre one simply by looking at the pattern of frequencies they see on their computer screen. "It turns out that the violins acknowledged to be great by expert listeners all look similar on the sound analyzer," says Nagyvary. "And the pattern almost exactly reproduces that of the human voice. It's no coincidence that listening to a great violin, played by a great violinist, can be such a powerful emotional experience."

Nagyvary, now 66, fell for those feelings early in his life. In the years before World War II, as he grew up in Hungary, "violins were everywhere, thanks to the gypsies who played at restaurants, at festivals, at weddings." His father, the engineer for the small municipality of Kaposvár, played as well, and young Joseph knew he, too, would play someday. "I had my first lessons from a gypsy in 1944," he says. Then the family violin disappeared—stolen by a soldier, goes the family story, although Nagyvary suspects that his mother sold it to buy food.When the war ended a year later, the Nagyvary family had to deal with an occupying Soviet army. "You have to say one thing for the Communists," he says. "They made culture widely available. So while we had no instrument for me to play, I could go listen to the world's greatest violinists in concert." The Communists also inadvertently dictated the course of Nagyvary's education. "I decided to study chemistry," he recalls, "because it was one of the least political professions around. You could always say you didn't have time to go to party meetings because you had to tend to your reactions."

Then, in 1956, Hungary erupted in revolution, and Nagyvary, who hurled his share of Molotov cocktails at Soviet tanks, fled. He ended up in Zurich, where he resumed his education and began studying the violin in earnest. Thanks to one of his professors, he got to practice on the violin Albert Einstein had once owned and played. "A good-sounding Italian violin from about 1860," he remembers. "A very ugly varnish, though. Not of great commercial value."

Recognizing that he would never be a great violinist, Nagyvary channeled his love for the instrument in other directions: "I lived next to a violin maker, and I began to watch him at work. I also became friendly with the concertmaster of one of the orchestras. He had a fine Stradivarius, and he was the first to explain to me what to listen for in a great violin." Nagyvary also began visiting Cremona, in northern Italy, to see where the objects of his fascination had been crafted more than two centuries earlier.

In 1962, Nagyvary moved on to Cambridge University to expand his knowledge of the then-burgeoning field of nucleic-acid chemistry before coming to the United States in 1964 to study at the University of Connecticut. It was there that he met and married his first wife. "The university was still an old New England institution in those days," he says, "and the dean told me that with my Transylvanian accent, I'd never get tenure." So he struck out for less-discriminatory parts of the country—first to Creighton University, in Omaha, and then, in 1968, to Texas A&M.

"My work mainly involved research into nucleic acids and cancer," says Nagyvary, "but outside the lab, life in College Station was a little boring. I needed a hobby. I tried horseback riding, but gave that up rather quickly after I got thrown. Eventually, I realized I already had something I loved: the violin. I began collecting books about violin history and violin making. I returned to Cremona to do research. I bought dozens of violins from pawnshops and took them apart to see how they were built. And I talked to dozens of violin makers. Every one had a different secret, but obviously none had the answer. Their violins were beautiful to look at, but each one of them made instruments that varied tremendously in the quality of their sound."

Nagyvary's historical research, however, yielded a crucial clue. According to an account written by the aristocratic patron of Joannes Baptista Guadagnini, one of the last of the famed Cremonese violin makers, it was important to use wood that had been dry-aged, with no extra treatment. Nagyvary didn't buy it. "I think this may have been a deliberate deception," he says, "in order to keep anyone from copying the great masters and lowering the value of existing instruments." He learned that wood supplies were tightly controlled at the time by government authorities in Venice: "If you just went out and cut wood from the forests, you could be thrown in jail." Instead, authorized woodcutters felled trees in the highlands and dumped logs into rivers, where they were carried downstream to the capital. "The Venetian navy got the best wood for building its ships," Nagyvary says. "Only after bureaucrats had taken inventory and assessed taxes could wood merchants buy their supplies—and at this point, the wood had been sitting in water for weeks or even months at a time."

Sure enough, says Nagyvary, when he took electron micrographs of a handful of wood shavings from Cremonese instruments—obtained mostly from sympathetic instrument restorers who periodically remove slivers from the insides of even the finest instruments to "tune up" their sound—residues of bacteria and fungi showed up, just as you'd expect in wood that's been sitting in water. Using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, Nagyvary also found the slivers to contain unusually large amounts of minerals including potassium, sodium, aluminum, copper, iron, and especially calcium and magnesium. Some of the minerals might have been drawn from the brackish water in Venetian lagoons, but the rest, Nagyvary decided, were most likely the result of deliberately treating the wood with mineral solutions. This was hardly a preposterous notion: Alchemy books—the chemistry texts of the day—had plenty of recipes for mineral-rich wood preservatives used by furniture makers to protect chairs and tables against damage from insects and general rot. "I think we can assume," Nagyvary says dryly, "that Stradivari and the other Cremona instrument makers were not ignorant of these widely available techniques."

So Nagyvary began soaking chunks of spruce and maple in various brews of preservative chemicals. He knew, for example, that some Swiss woodworkers soaked their lumber in solutions containing bovine dung and urine. So he put up a sign above a tub in a men's room in the biochemistry lab: "Please contribute generously to violin research." He kept experimenting with brines and in 1975 went to Cremona, where he talked a violin maker there into building some instruments with his treated wood. This raised the question of how to varnish the finished instruments. As little as possible, say physicists who study the vibrational qualities of wood: Varnish adds weight to a violin, keeping it from vibrating to its full potential. Nonsense, say many violin makers: Varnish is essential to the beauty of a violin, and the secrets of varnish are jealously guarded by professionals.

"As a biochemist, though," Nagyvary says, "you should have to think about it for only a little while to realize they're both right and both wrong. I'm annoyed that it took me a couple of years to realize how important varnish can be." Many violin makers swear by oil-based varnishes—and for those craftsmen, he asserts, the instruments would be better off bare. "First the oil penetrates deep into the wood. Then it dries and becomes gummy. That dampens down the vibrations."

On the most pristine surviving Stradivari instruments, by contrast, the finish has a brittle, almost glassy look. "It's like a candy apple," says Nagyvary—and, he believes, with good reason. The apple's surface is hard and shiny because the molecules that make up its sugar coating link up to form long, interlocked chains. If Stradivari's varnish contained sugar or a polysaccharide, the molecules would have attached to one another and to the wood, stiffening it so it could vibrate more efficiently—precisely the opposite of what happens with oil. Nagyvary found support for his belief in 16th-century documents that noted that wood finishes frequently contained powdered glass, porcelain, or amber to add stiffness to the wood and make the finish glitter like a gem, and that fruit-tree extracts were widely used in wood varnishes. "This makes perfect sense," he says. "The pectin creates beautiful polymers. It's what makes jellies jell. Look at this."

He heads into a lab at the far end of the bungalow and picks up a beaker filled with a solution of gum from the guar plant. He adds a bit of borax, "commonly used as an insecticide," he says, "but in this mixture it acts as a cross-linker, weaving the chains of sugar molecules into a sort of web." Suddenly, the liquid solidifies into a gelatinous mass. Nagyvary takes it into his hands and begins pulling it like taffy. "We need an emulsifier, of course, to make it fluid enough to work into the wood. I like to use ox bile myself." He also adds plenty of other ingredients, including quartz, amber, gypsum, coral, zinc, and powdered ruby and sapphire. By the time he's ready to apply the mixture to the instruments he makes, it has the consistency of mayonnaise.

The test, of course, is in the playing, and Nagyvary claims that his lab tests show the sound patterns of his instruments match those of the best Stradivariuses. Musicians who have tried Nagyvary's creations agree that they have a lovely sound. Still, he hasn't been able to get a concert star to make a public endorsement. "Yehudi Menuhin liked my violins very much," he recalls, "but he said he could never lend his name to them because he couldn't afford to alienate the big dealers who supplied him with free instruments." Nagyvary says the violin-making-and-selling establishment regards him as an interloper. "I was selling instruments for $5,000 or $10,000 that sounded almost as good as the ones they sold for $1 million. They didn't want people asking themselves whether the name alone was worth $1 million."

Without big-name endorsements, Nagyvary has had to rely on grants from the Texas government as well as his own earnings to fund additional research. But the money is running out and Nagyvary is frustrated. As a solution, he's thinking of stepping up production in his lab at the home he shares with his wife and their teenage daughter. "I won't get endorsements, necessarily, but if I concentrate on giving my violins a more beautiful final finish, they'll catch on by word of mouth," he muses. And he has a new idea, lifted from the movie The Red Violin. "I'm thinking of coloring my varnish with blood," he says with a Count Dracula accent. "But I won't use human blood. It doesn't have enough DNA to polymerize properly. I think chicken blood will be much better. I'll have to work on it."

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