Victorian novelist George Eliot said, “’Tis God gives skill, but not without men’s hand: He could not make Antonio Stradivarius’s [sic] violins without Antonio.” But perhaps Antonio Stradivari, whose violins and cellos are generally considered to be the best in existence, could not make his instruments without the hands of a local apothecary. According to an article published by the Austin American-Statesman, Joseph Nagyvary, a chemistry professor emeritus at Texas A&M University, believes that a chemical treatment used to preserve and protect the wood from worms and fungi may be partly responsible for the instruments’ celebrated sound.
The article continues by saying that Nagyvary, a 75 year-old Hungarian refugee and well-regarded luthier and violinist in his own right, published his findings in the current journal of the Public Library of Science.
The Statesman report says that in 1976, after joining the A&M faculty, Nagyvary first formulated his hypothesis and has since tested it by obtaining wood shavings (no larger than a quarter of a matchstick) of priceless instruments from repairmen. The repairmen shave small pieces from the inside of the instrument to provide a smooth surface to which they can graft replacement wood for repairs.
The report goes on to say that Renald Guillemette, director of an electron microprobe laboratory in the A&M geology department worked with Nagyvary by testing the samples. He discovered that the wood contained, among other things, borax—a chemical used as a preservative for more than 2,000 years.
“There is no question that the wood was treated,” Guillemette said in the report. “Now, whether the treatment was done to add density to the wood or as an insect repellent, the science can’t say.”
Nagyvary, the report says, used shavings from a 1716 Stradivarius violin, a 1732 Stradivarius cello, a 1735 Guarneri violin, and a 1742 Guarneri violin. According to wikipedia.org, Guarneri instruments are esteemed as highly as Stradivarius instruments. Guarneri came from a long line of luthiers—his grandfather trained under Nicolo Amati, of whom Stradivari was also an apprentice.
Nagyvary’s research found that in Cremona Italy, the village where Stradivari and Guarneri worked, treatment of wood was common, not only in instrument making, but also in fine furniture and other pieces.
“My guess is that Cremona had a good chemist who provided treatment for everyone who worked with wood, not just Stradivari or Guarneri,” Nagyvary said in the report.
The report says that the magnificent sound of Stradivarius and Guarneri instruments has been variously attributed to the quality of the wood, the way the wood was harvested, the shapes of the instrument bodies, the varnishes used, and the skills of the craftsmen. Now, Nagyvary’s theory adds a new perspective. The fact remains that music fans remain in debt to Stradivari and Guarneri for bringing the sounds of heaven to man’s hands.