The Stradivarius Puzzle  CD provides a comparison of a Stradivarius violin with a new violin

made by Dr. Joseph Nagyvary and his associates. 





CD Tracks

                                    J. S. Bach:  Sonata No.1,

1          4:34                                                     Adagio (Strad)

2          5:20                                                     Fugue

                                    I. Stravinsky:  Suite Italienne

3          2:28                                                     Introduzione (Strad)

4          3:24                                                     Serenata (Strad)

5          2:26                                                     Tarantella

6          1:39                                                     Gavotte

7          2:29                                                     Variations (Strad) I and II

8          1:18                                                     Scherzino (Strad)

9          5:06                                                     Minuetto and Finale

10        5:18                 S. A. Sargon*                       Supplication

11        4:16                                                     Lullabye (Strad)

12        4:57                                                     Freilach

13        1:23                 J. V. Wilson              Aggie War Hymn


*Composer-in-residence, Southern Methodist University


                                    The performers:

Violinist Zina Schiff has been described by The New York Times as an instrumentalist of "luscious high voltage...vintage Heifetz." The comparison to the legendary Jascha Heifetz is apt, as Ms. Schiff was a Heifetz student and protege. With a special blend of virtuosity, musical integrity, and communicative power, she has dazzled audiences and critics throughout the United States, Eastern and Western Europe, Israel, Australia, and the former Soviet Union. A student of Ivan Galamian at The Curtis Institute of Music, she is the only violinist to have won both the Junior and Senior Auditions of the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Zina has been selected as an "Outstanding Young Artist" by Musical America. Television viewers worldwide saw Zina on the PBS "Nova" program entitled "What is Music?", where she performed the Sibelius Concerto on an experimental violin by Texas A&M  professor Joseph Nagyvary.  Zina's highly acclaimed debut recordings were two compact discs - “The Lark Ascending” and “Bach/Vivaldi” -- with the Israel Philharmonic, performed on a Nagyvary violin. Her latest CDs -- “Here’s One”, a collection of American music, and “King David’s Lyre”, a set of works by Jewish composers - were performed on a 1697 Stradivarius and were selected as Best of 1997 by the American Record Guide.

Mary Barranger has been the in-orchestra pianist for the San Diego Symphony since 1976 and principal pianist for the San Diego Chamber Orchestra since 1988.  With Zina Schiff, she has recorded a disc of music of Cecil Burleigh for the Naxos American Classic Series.


A Solution to the Stradivarius Puzzle


How were uneducated craftsmen like Antonio Stradivari able to create string instruments which are considered superior to anything made by later generations?  Why was their method of violinmaking, seemingly known by all local craftsmen, not transmitted to us but irretrievably lost?  This is the Stradivarius puzzle, one of the great puzzles in the history of civilization and culture.  I have pursued these questions throughout much of my adult life, first as a hobbyist, then as a committed scientist until I found the first answers compatible with historical accounts and scientific analyses.

It appears that the art of violinmaking in Cremona during the Golden Years ( ~1550-1750) was shaped by historical coincidences in wood acquisition and preservation.  Stradivari and his colleagues were likely the beneficiaries of a local technology without being aware of it.  For protection against woodworm and mold, chemists were known to apply a chemical solution to the surface of the wood, and this solution was often a slurry made with a powder the alchemists called "the salt of gems".  According to historical accounts from Cremona collected by V. Grivel, these sophisticated materials were provided by the local apothecary to a variety of wood workers.  Presumably, neither the apothecary nor the violinmakers were conscious of the profound acoustical effect of the chemicals which were used routinely on all fine furniture. 

This explanation also answers the question of why the supreme method of violinmaking was not passed on to the next generation and became instead "the lost secret."  There is no reason to assume that the Cremona violinmakers  knew more than the German and French luthiers; they had no secret to pass on. It appears to be a matter of lucky coincidences limited to a few geographical locations.  As the technology of wood acquisition changed and violinmakers in Cremona began to use more expedient wood finishing methods, the violin lost the unique feature of the old Italian sound, which is its brilliance.

Following fifteen years of historical explorations in Northern Italy, my experimental violin research at Texas A&M University began in 1976 using materials from insect wings and shrimp shells as wood fillers.  The eureka moment of exhilaration came in 1981 when we first had the chance to analyze an authentic specimen from a Guarnerius cello.  We found the wood surface saturated with fine crystals, "the salt of gems", just as predicted.  Since then, mineral fillers have been found in all samples of Cremona instruments both by us and other investigators.

In 1988, the Coordinating Board of Higher Education of Texas awarded a grant  for our reconstruction studies directed toward the reproduction of the Stradivarius.  In this major enterprise, we were able to screen out the best choices among the large variety of salts, crystals and natural polymers which were not defined by the alchemists.  Chemistry has proved to be an essential tool in our efforts to recreate the mellow yet brilliant sound of the old string instruments.

Our results became known from numerous public lectures sponsored since 1977 by the American Chemical Society, and the resulting popular news accounts have influenced violinmaking worlwide.  For the first time, we are beginning to understand what makes a violin great and how to translate this knowledge into actual practice.

The proof is in the pudding, and this CD offers the first comparison of the old Stradivarius flavor (1697) with a recent recipe.  Our violin, made in collaboration with master Guang Yue Chen in 1991, has a similar combination of focus and brilliance as a typical Stradivarius.  One should not forget that the tonal beauty of both violins is also due to the exquisite artistry of Zina Schiff.  We have decided to give the listeners the chance to guess without prejudice which movement is intoned on which violin, while hoping that the entire menu will be found delectable.  The Strad was heard on tracks 1,3,4,7,8, and 11; the rest of the music was on the Nagyvary-Chen violin.

We dedicate this recording to the 125th anniversary celebration of Texas A&M University  whose multifaceted public service has accommodated my search for the holy grail of  Stradivarius.

Joseph Nagyvary




A note from Dr. Attila E. Pavlath, president, American Chemical Society:

"Professor Joseph Nagyvary has been the pioneer of the chemical paradigm in violinmaking for over a quarter century. As one of the most popular speakers of the American Chemical Society with over 250 lectures, Nagyvary has marshalled a convincing body of evidence for the role of chemistry in the sublime art of lutherie. He has brought the Stradivarius from its Olympian heights down to Earth since his theories have begun to yield practical benefits, as can be ascertained by the present recording.  This is a fitting way to celebrate the 125th anniversary of a great university."




This recording was made during October 12 to 16,  2001 at California State University at San Diego in Studio B by Dr. Patrick Walker, of WalkerVision Interarts.  A single Royer/Speiden SF-12 stereo ribbon microphone was used  and the editing did not include any manipulation of the soundwaves in order to provide for a fair comparison of the two violins.