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Heavenly Strings

For Centuries, Experts Have Struggled--Unsuccessfully--To Duplicate the Perfection of Antonio Stradivari's Violins
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

(continued from page 2)

Perhaps the wood makes the difference. Yes, absolutely, say some; Stradivari selected his maple and spruce from local or foreign forests long since cut down and he treated it in a special, secret way. No, say others; equally fine wood is available now, easily obtainable, and the old methods for treating it can be duplicated.

Or maybe it is the arching of the violin's back; the elegant, masterly shaving of the wood to fine gradations of thickness and thinness; the carving of the f-holes; the placement of the internal bass bar and sound post. All have been subjected to meticulous modern measurement and acoustical analyses. Exact copies can be--and have been--made.

What about the impossible-to-duplicate effects of aging on that marvelous wood, varnish and filler, not to mention two centuries of playing? Yes, say some; that is what gives Stradivari instruments their extraordinary, unique sound; a sound that causes listeners such as poet Daniel Mark Epstein to envision "little cherubs with halos" fluttering about a Strad while it is being played. No, not quite, say others. "There are old violins that don't sound good," says Carlyss.

So, what was Stradivari's secret?

"In my view, there is no secret," says Carlyss. As a member of the Juilliard String Quartet, the Library of Congress "resident" chamber music ensemble, from 1966 to 1986, he played all three Stradivari violins in the Library's collection. "It's like saying, What's the secret of Rembrandt? The Strads are works of art. They're the epitome of baroque art. The genius used in making these things is genius. And even if they copy it--and they can copy it--they still can't imitate it. It's just like imitating a Rembrandt. You can do it, but it's not the same."

That hasn't stopped people from trying--for more than 250 years. Every so often, someone proclaims the discovery of Stradivari's "secret."

In 1984, Professor Joseph Nagyvary at Texas A&M University, a specialist in biophysics and biochemistry, announced a recipe for recreating Stradivari's varnish: Boil one pound of shrimp shells in powerful lye for 24 hours, strain it through cheesecloth, then rinse the residue thoroughly with water and dissolve it in vinegar until it attains a syrup-like consistency. This, he contended, would duplicate Stradivari's varnish, which Nagyvary believes was made mostly of chitin, the polymer found in the bodies and wings of insects. (Shrimp shells also contain chitin.)

In 1986, Nagyvary claimed that a microscopic fungus growing in the wood used by Cremonese violin makers was responsible for their special sound. Long soaking of the logs from which the violins' wood came made it especially receptive to the particular qualities of Stradivari's varnish, he said. On the other hand, in 1988, William Fulton, a retired aerospace engineer and now secretary of the Violin Society of America, suggested that wood destined to be made into violins should be subjected to ammonia fumes for several weeks to duplicate an eighteenth century smokehouse treatment.

In 1991, Mayne R. Coe, a retired organic chemist in Jupiter, Florida, received U.S. Patent 5018422 for what he believed was the secret to Stradivari varnish: tung oil. He claimed Italy started importing tung oil around the time Stradivari and other violin masters in Cremona began establishing their reputations. He cited other research that suggested the violin makers colored their varnish with a red dye called dragon's blood resin, extracted from the rattan fruit from India....

You get the idea.


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