Joseph Nagyvary says he’s found a way to make contemporary violins sound like a Stradivarius.
The name “Stradivarius” evokes a kind of reverence among classical violinists. The creations of legendary luthier Antonio Stradivari, who died in 1737, are prized the world over for the silvery clarity and richness of their tones and their responsiveness to the hands of musicians. They command prices in the millions from musicians and collectors.
Luthiers, or makers of stringed instruments, down through the years have tried to find ways to reproduce those delightful qualities. Often, they’ve tried to do so by selecting and shaping the wood used in their instruments.
One man thinks he’s done it through biochemistry.
“The issue here is: Can the audience tell the difference between a $3 million Stradivarius or a $20,000 Nagyvary?” said Joseph Nagyvary. For Nagyvary, a professor emeritus of biochemistry at Texas A&M University, the difference between the greatest Italian violins a contemporary violin arises largely from the chemical make-up of the instrument’s wood.
Nagyvary became interested in the violin as a boy in pre-World War II Hungary.
“As a child, I wanted to play the violin real bad,” he said, his words reflecting the accents of his homeland. He was forced to leave Hungary as a young adult during the revolt against the country’s Stalinist, pro-USSR government.
“I had to step out from the second-story window to escape the two guys with submachine guns who were looking for me,” he said. He went on to study biochemistry, and at the age of 22 studied the violin.
“I had this dream I was going to be the next Yasha Heifetz,” he said with a chuckle. When told by his teacher that he was too old to learn to play like the famous violinist, Nagyvary began using his biochemical expertise to investigate the secrets of the old masters.
Nagyvary studied the techniques of the old-world luthiers of northern Italy, particularly Stradivari and other masters of the period.
“I learned to make violins from scratch,” he said. His research included the chemical study of parts of some of the instruments they had produced.
“For the past five years, we have been analyzing specimens from two Stradivari and two Guarneri,” he said.
The luthiers of the Guarneri family were contemporaries of Stradivari, and lived in the same northern Italian city, Cremona. Their violins have a different tonal quality, but are prized nonetheless. Nagyvary said he obtained the small bits of wood used in his research from violins that were being repaired — even the most priceless instruments age, chip and fracture over time.
After years of research, Nagyvary decided that the tonal qualities of a Stradivari’s violins resulted largely from two factors: The chemical qualities of the wood used to make them, and of the varnish that covers them.
According to Nagyvary, the logs of maple, spruce and other types of wood that eventually composed the famous violins were cut, then floated by river to Venice, Italy.
The wood was stored in briny lagoons in that watery city until it was sent on to places like Cremona to be sold. Nagyvary said the soaking imbued the wood with chemicals that changed its tonal qualities.
Cremona’s luthiers added to that chemical change when they treated the wood with borax to protect it from woodworms. Finally, luthiers like Stradivari used very different types of varnishes to coat and protect their instruments than those used currently.
“The finish on the Cremona violins is entirely different from what violin makers used for (the past) 200 years,” Nagyvary said.
“This gives you the high frequency overtones of great violins,” Nagyvary said. “This imparts the brilliance of the old instrument.”
Armed with this knowledge, Nagyvary worked on replicating the tonal qualities of the old masters’ works through soaking the wood used for his violins in a water-based solution and coating the finished instruments with a varnish. He asserts that he’s able to create instruments with tonal qualities that are very close to that produced by masters — including that of a mid-quality Stradivarius.
On Sept. 4, Nagyvary will give a talk about his search for the sound of an old master at the Eastman School of Music’s Kilbourn Hall in Rochester, N.Y. After the talk, musicians will play a Nagyvary Guarneri del Gesu and a real Guarneri del Gesu for the audience, giving them the chance to compare their sounds. Nagyvary’s talk is one of a series sponsored by the American Chemical Society.
Don Robertson, president of the Robertson and Sons Violin Shop, has repaired fine musical instruments since 1965. His Albuquerque, N.M., shop has owned, repaired and sold the works of Stradivari.
“I’m quite familiar with the instrument and maker,” he said. Robertson has also worked with Nagyvary during his search for the sound of the old masters, and has come to respect his efforts.
“I would give Dr. Nagyvary my strongest encouragement to continuing his research,” Robertson said. “He has a passion for violins.” At the same time, Robertson doesn’t believe wood has to be soaked in some kind of solution to become a fine violin.
Moreover, a new violin, however created, lacks the touch of Stradivari’s hand.
“He made some of the most beautiful, geometrical instruments you could imagine.”
Finally, a new violin lacks two qualities of a well-used Stradivarius: age, and thousands of hours of use. Only through thousands of hours of playing can a fine instrument become a truly great instrument, he said.
While Robertson pronounced Nagyvary’s violins “tonally quite good,” comparing them to a work by a luthier long gone is inappropriate.
“I don’t think we can compare a contemporary instrument to something that was made 300 years ago,” he said.