Stradivari's secret? It's in the wood

Times Staff Writer

Scientists say they have moved a step closer to unraveling the mystery behind the distinct sound of Stradivarius violins.

Subjecting wood chips from a centuries-old violin to laboratory analysis, a team led by Texas A&M; University chemist Joseph Nagyvary discovered evidence that the wood had been chemically treated.

The team reported in the journal Nature this week that lignin and hemicellulose -- substances naturally found in wood -- were degraded in the violin sample. Soaking the wood in a solution of chemical salts would cause such damage, scientists said.

"It goes well beyond normal aging -- beyond even boiling the wood for a day and baking it in the oven," said Nagyvary, who also builds re-creations of Stradivarius and Guarnerius violins.

Antonio Stradivari, who died in 1737, crafted his famous violins in Cremona, Italy, near Milan. About 600 of his instruments remain today, and some have fetched more than $1 million at auction.

The secret of the violins' prized sound has long captivated both musicians and scientists. Some researchers have focused on the varnish, suggesting it stiffened the wood. Others have pondered the choice of wood -- unusually dense alpine spruce on the top plate and maple on the back plate and sides.

Nagyvary believes chemical treatments hold the answer. Intended to destroy pesky wood worms, the chemicals had the added result of producing a drier, lighter wood with a cleaner sound, he said.

But George Bissinger, a physicist at East Carolina University who has used laser scanners and computers to model how Stradivarius violins emit sound, said the latest research fell short of cracking the musical mystery.

Factors influencing a violin's sound are complex and include its shape and age, and how well it has been maintained, among other things.

In this context, "chemistry is not a silver bullet," he said.

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