The secret of the incredible sound of the Stradivari violin has been discovered
An international team of researchers has confirmed that the famous luthier Antonio Stradivari and other luthiers treated their instruments with chemicals responsible for their unique soundand many of them have been identified for the first time.
Joseph Nagyvary, emeritus professor of biochemistry at Texas A&M University and co-author of the study, first proposed the theory that the chemicals used in the manufacture of violins – not so much the ability to make the tool itself – are the reason why Stradivari and others were able to make instruments whose sound hasn’t been matched for over 200 years. The results of the team led by Hwan-Ching Tai, a chemistry professor at National Taiwan University, were published in Angewandte Chemie International Edition.
About 40 years ago, at Texas A&M University, Nagyvary was the first to demonstrate a theory he had spent years studying: the main reason for pure sound, in addition to fine craftsmanship, was the chemicals used by Stradivari and others to treat tools and warding off a worm infestation. “All my research over many years has been based on the assumption that the wood of the great masters had undergone an aggressive chemical treatment, and this had a direct role in the creation of the great sound of Stradivari and Guarneri,” explained Nagyvary.
The research team’s current findings show that borax, zinc, copper and alum, along with lime water, were used to treat the wood used in the tools. “Borax has a long history as a preservative, dating back to ancient Egyptians, who used it in mummification and later as an insecticide, ”Nagyvary said. “The presence of these chemicals indicates a collaboration between luthiers and local pharmacies and pharmacists of the time. Both Stradivari and Guarneri wanted to take care of their violins to prevent worms from eating the wood, because worm infestations were so widespread at the time ”.
According to Nagyvary, each luthier likely used their own homemade methods of treating the wood. “This new study reveals that Stradivari and Guarneri had their own individual method of woodworking, to which they could have attached considerable significance,” he said.
The paint recipes weren’t secret because the paint itself is not a determining factor in the quality of the color. On the contrary, the The process by which fresh spruce boards have been treated and worked with a variety of water-based chemical treatments is critical to the sound of the finished violin. That knowledge was needed to gain a “competitive edge” over other instrument makers, he said.
Furthermore, the chemicals used are found everywhere and within the wood, not just on its surface, and this directly affected the sound quality of the instruments.
More research will be needed to clarify more details on how chemicals and wood produce pure tonal quality. Nagyvary has been involved in violin research for much of his 87 years. He learned to play in Switzerland on an instrument that belonged to Albert Einstein.