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BYU professors delve into a violin mystery

Stradivarius' rich sound may have been due to pest control

Published: Thursday, Nov. 30 2006 11:56 a.m. MST

PROVO — Antonio Stradivari crafted 1,200 violins before he died in 1737. Today, about 600 of the instruments survive and sell for as much as $5 million.

They are prized for their sound, but for more than 250 years researchers have tried to understand what makes a Stradivarius sound so special. Two Brigham Young University professors provided key clues to a Texas scientist who says he's solved the mystery in an article published Wednesday in the prestigious scholarly journal Nature.

The conclusion? Stradivari and a less-famous contemporary named Guarneri del Gesu boiled the maple in their violins in chemicals, probably to ward off pests. The chemicals added a richness to the sound of the instruments that has not been duplicated.

Texas A&M University biochemist Joseph Nagyvary has spent 30 years trying to prove that chemicals gave the violins their unique sounds, and his research received a big boost when he spoke in Utah a few years ago and met Noel Owen, a BYU professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

Owen told Nagyvary that he had been analyzing wood using an infrared spectrometer for 20 years, since he came to BYU from the University of Wales.

In 2003, two researchers claimed the secret of the Stradivarius was a "Little Ice Age" that gripped Europe from the mid-1400s until the mid-1800s, slowing tree growth and providing unusually dense wood for master violinmakers in 18th century Italy.

Instead, Nagyvary, with the help of Owen and BYU statistician Dennis Tolley, said the new research proves that chemical treatment is the magic ingredient and very well may have been accidental.

Owen analyzed slivers of wood from modern violins and shavings from five antique instruments from the 1700s using an infrared spectrometer in BYU's Ezra Taft Benson Building. Infrared light that bounced through a diamond window onto the samples detected subtle differences between the maple in a Stradivarius and that from other violins made during the same period.

"What we can see is the result of elaborate wood treatment," Nagyvary told Nature. "Woodworm and fungus were significant problems for the craftsmen. They probably boiled the wood in a brine that contained various minerals to exterminate infestations."

The researchers don't know what the chemical recipe was, but it created harder, lighter wood with a smoother sound.

A 1681 Stradivarius and a 1734 Guarneri stole the show at a Utah recital two weeks ago. Deseret Morning News reviewer Edward Reichel wrote that "the Stradivarius had a much richer, mellower and fuller sound than the Guarneri, which sounded somewhat thinner, yet still possessed a fullness that gave it vibrancy."

Owen said statistics professor Tolley's contribution was crucial.

"Articles in Nature are refereed very strenuously," Owen said. "The referees asked us if the differences we saw in the infrared were significant and suggested statistical analysis."

Owen asked Tolley to join the team and provided numerous readings. Tolley's detailed study of those readings showed a significant difference between the woods.

A biomimetics specialist at Bath University in the United Kingdom said the team's work looks sound.

"There is a lot of muck and magic about this type of thing," Julian Vincent told Nature. Better proof would include making violins from the exact wood used by Stradivari, treating one and not the other, and comparing their sounds.

Owen said Nagyvary, who plays the violin, is making violins and using a secret chemical recipe to treat them. His instruments have been praised by professional musicians.

The study caps Owen's career. He retired from BYU in July, though he is still completing research at the university.

"It's a great way to retire from your job," he said. "It's more fun than anything in many ways. I'm amazed at the fuss generated from this little paper."

Some of the fuss, he admits, will come because Nagyvary believes Stradivari and Guarneri stumbled onto their success.

"Nagyvary believes these two masters probably have been given more kudos for this work than maybe they deserve," Owen said. "He thinks the local chemist who gave them the chemicals to protect the wood probably also gave them the means to make the sound so wonderful and then died without knowing what he'd done."

Nagyvary obtained the wood slivers from instruments damaged by fire, flood or other mishaps, Owen said. He is hoping to obtain more samples for tests that would determine the correct chemical agents.

"But in the past," Nagyvary said in a release issued by Texas A&M, "there has been a lack of cooperation from the antique violin business, and that has to be overcome. It may help us to produce violins and other instruments one day that are just as good as the million-dollar Stradivarius. And this research could also tell us ways to better preserve instruments, too."


E-mail: twalch@desnews.com

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