Thursday, January 04, 2007

 

The key to Stradivari's tone

From materials@nature.com (part of the Nature publishing group): Simple pest control techniques may have given rise to the greatest violins ever made. Biochemists say the key to the instrument's sweet sounds come not only from their construction but also from chemicals used to treat wood.

For hundreds of years people have tried to duplicate the tone of Italian violins such as a Stradivari and a Guarneri. Now scientists say at least part of the secret is to boil the wood in minerals.

A team of scientists lead by Joseph Nagyvary* (homepage) of Texas A and M University, College Station, used nuclear magnetic resonance and infrared spectroscopy to analyse the chemical makeup of wood in antique and modern-day instruments.

Slivers of the wood used to make modern violins were compared with the shavings of five antique instruments from the 1700s. Included in the mix were a Stradivari violin and cello, a Guarneri violin, a Gand and Bernardel violin from Paris and a Henry Jay viola from London.

Continued at "The key to Stradivari's tone" (may require free registration)

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Based on the Brief Communication:

Wood used by Stradivari and Guarneri

Joseph Nagyvary, Joseph A. DiVerdi, Noel L. Owen and H. Dennis Tolley

Opening Paragraph

Whether or not the great Italian violin-makers used wood that had been chemically processed in order to preserve it and enhance the instrument's sound quality has long been a contentious issue. Here we use nuclear magnetic resonance and infrared spectroscopy to analyse organic matter in wood taken from antique instruments made by Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu. Our results indicate that the wood used by the masters could indeed have been chemically treated, a technique that may inspire an approach to violin making that is more chemistry-based.

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*Joseph Nagyvary was the subject of a 2002 Discover article:

Stradivari's Secret - biochemist Jospeh Nagyvary's resarch on violin-making

...Is [Joseph Nagyvary] 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 Nicolo 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...

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From the Navygary Violins website:

"Dr. Joseph Nagyvary has brought an unprecedented level of academic expertise to bear upon the age old violin puzzle. A native of Hungary, he majored in chemistry at the Eotvos Lorand University of Budapest (1952-1956); he became a student of the Swiss Nobel Laureate Paul Karrer in 1957, and received his PhD in the chemistry of natural products in 1962. While in Zurich, he had his first formal violin lessons on a violin which once belonged to Albert Einstein, a coincidence which helped turning his attention to the physical mysteries of the violin. He gained his first glimpses into the art of violin making from the Zurich luthier Amos Segesser. In 1963, he spent a postdoctoral year in Cambridge with Lord Alexander Todd, a British Nobel Laureate. He came to the United States in 1964, and settled down in Texas in 1968 where he has remained a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at Texas A and M University. Dr. Nagyvary was the recipient of a Career Development Grant,and numerous other research grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the NASA. His discoveries concerning the classical violins were made public in over 120 lectures sponsored by the American Chemical Society. On such occasions, his claims were examined by professionals and comparisons were made between Professor Nagyvary's new recreations and the finest locally available antique Italian violins." [Stradivarius]

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