Searching for the Source of Stradivari’s Sublime Sound
Michael A. Greenwood
Musicians and listeners alike have debated for centuries why instruments crafted by Italian master Antonio Stradivari have such a sublime sound. Modern technology may at last have found the answer.
Researchers used solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy to analyze the chemical composition of precious thin shavings of maple wood taken from a few of the multimillion-dollar masterpieces while under repair. They now have evidence that the pure tone of certain antique instruments results not merely from a particular type of wood, but rather from the chemicals with which it was treated.
Researchers used chemical analysis techniques to pinpoint the source of Stradivari’s distinct sound.
Samples of wood used by Stradivari and another master Italian luthier of the era, Guarneri del Gesù, were compared with samples from instruments produced later by two other European artisans. Samples of modern tone woods from Bosnia and central Europe also were used as a control. The infrared spectroscopy was employed so as not to damage the shavings. The NMR device detected changes in the organic matrix of the wood and supported the IR conclusions.
The investigators found the wood from both Italians’ instruments, particularly Guarneri’s, to have lower levels of a hemicellulose component than the other woods. They also found that the samples had fewer acetyl groups than natural wood.
They concluded what had previously been suggested: that microcomposite and nanocomposite varnish used by the two Italian masters, along with their overall wood treatment process, likely accounted for the distinguished tone of those instruments.
But they did not solve all the musical mysteries of the era. More than 300 years after Stradivari fashioned the first instrument in his Cremona studio, it is still unknown exactly what chemical agents were used or whether the master fully grasped the nuanced effect that the chemicals would have on sound quality. Some speculate that the varnish may have been concocted locally simply to protect the fragile instruments from fungus and wood-loving worms.
The research team included Joseph Nagyvary, a retired professor from Texas A&M University in College Park who has studied antique violins for decades. He was assisted by scientists from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and from Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
The findings could eventually change the way modern violins are made by inspiring luthiers to use chemistry to re-create the wood tone produced by the old masters.
Nature, November 2006, p. 565.
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