Stradivarius: Artisan or accidental chemist?

For one scientist, the magic behind the legendary violins is in the varnish.

Even physicists still entertain the idea that Augustus Stradivarius, the semiliterate 17th-century violinmaker, had an angel on his shoulder as he worked in his Cremora, Italy, studio.

After 200 years of knocking on its wood to figure out its secret, many scientists say they're no closer to solving the mysteries of the Stradivarius violin: How did the master carver do it? And why can't the extraordinary beauty of its sound be replicated today?

To be sure, God may have given Stradivarius great talent. But in the end, he may not have had much to do with the otherworldly charm of the tones and baritones of the some 700 Strads still around. In fact, the answer to the world's oldest-running physics experiment may be more akin to a recipe for a Cajun chef's secret sauce than to the woodcarving genius of a Renaissance luthier.

According to Joseph Nagyvary, a chemist at Texas A&M University in College Station and a native Hungarian whose heavy accent is the European equivalent of a Texas drawl, the Strad's empathic tone comes as much from the corner chemist as from the angelic artisan.

In fact, the insect-repelling mixture of "salt of gems" - finely crushed crystals - and borax that Cremora's violin-makers used as varnish is what fossilized the wood to a perfect pitch, Mr. Nagyvary claims. The accidental chemical reaction of phosphates and wood, he says, lifted Stradivarius's violins to a whole new level.

When chemists changed their formulas around the time of the master's death, they also buried the secret of the Strad, Nagyvary says. "There was a chemical paradigm that ensured the ingredients being used by the Cremoran chemists were much like the secrets of a good Texas barbeque sauce," he says. "The unsung hero of the Stradivarius phenomenon is the drugstore chemist."

Certainly, many physicists and luthiers say Nagyvary's ideas are badly tuned. And one can imagine his talk of the Strad as an accident of culture, chemistry, and history - rather than something touched by God - might not sit well with the tuxedo set.

To make the resistance worse, Nagyvary is a force of personality, a swaggering European with all the chinks and character of an old Italian violin. Unable to follow his childhood dream to become a violinist after the Axis powers burned all the instruments in his hometown, Nagyvary took lessons in his 20s on an Italian violin once owned by Albert Einstein. Then an aspiring chemist, he began to think that soluble salts and gum arabic may be part of the Cremora secret.

It's been a tough row to hoe. When he first broached his theory to the American Violin Society in 1977, he was "ridiculed." Things haven't changed much: A recent e-mail to him said simply: "Quit."

Meanwhile, writing for the University of Birmingham's (England) School of Physics and Astronomy, Professor Colin Gough recently dismissed the "secret sauce" scenario: "There is no convincing evidence to support the idea of a secret formula!"

Other tests have come up inconclusive. Trying to measure every possible variable of the Strad and its 50 interworking parts could take another two centuries. Others have tried to map the hollows and curves of the violin, creating diagrams that look like Army topo maps.

Nagyvary has had his hits and misses, too. Before he procured a sliver of Stradivari varnish, Nagyvary tried boiling lye and shrimp shells together in order to produce a chitinous surface - with little success.

"The Cremora varnish was very hard to procure; it took me 20 years," Nagyvary says, noting that few people want some guy scratching varnish off their $2 million treasures. "Even today, people know me and won't let me close to their violins."

So, is it true? Can chemistry beat craftsmanship to match "the best of the best" reputation of a Stradivarius? As an experiment, Sigma Xi, an honor society for scientists, invited Shunsuke Sato, a 17-year-old virtuoso carrying a "loaner" Strad from the Nippon Foundation, to the Fletcher Theater here in order to match the Cremora invention with Nagyvary's own 10-year-old "Stradivarius," built at Texas A&M.

Though physics can't measure pleasure, Nagyvary's spectrogram tests of open Es and Gs on both violins show that the results for the register between 4,000 and 6,000 kHz - the zone where the human ear is the most sensitive - are almost identical, with Nagyvary's violin exhibiting as uncommon a brilliance and resonance as the real Stradivarius.

But in play, even the untrained ear hears a distinct difference. The oxide-burnished Strad floats through a Saint-Saens waltz, invoking the kind of reverie that has brought everyone from John Hersey to Georgie Eliot to tears. But the same tune on Nagyvary's violin - fitted with 17th-century resins and lathered with layers of Cremoran-style oils and varnishes - sounds distinctly brighter.

"The Strad was definitely warmer," confirms Mr. Sato after the concert. "I think Nagyvary's getting close," says Steve Reynolds, a former professional violinist.

As if to still his critics, Nagyvary acknowledges that his search for the music world's holy grail isn't over. "There are many mysteries left," he says.

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