Joseph Nagyvary heads north on Agrimony Road, away from his office in the sleek new Blochemistry Building at Texas A&M University. Ten minutes later, the 56-year-old professor turns his white Toyota onto a dirt road and pulls up at a rundown agricultural field station on the edge of the sprawling campus in College Station, some hundred miles northwest of Houston. A herd of Hereford cattle grazing in a nearby pasture duly notes his arrival.
Here, in two cluttered, white frame buildings, Nagyvary oversees research into, no, not beef production, but violins-and extremely unconventional violins, at that. The Hungarian-born chemist claims that his instruments come closer to duplicating the sound of a Stradivarius than anything made since 1800. "We can prove," he declares in his heavily accented English, "that violins have been made with the wrong wood and varnish for the last 200 years."
Those assertions are enough to send stringed instrument aficionados into a rage. For centuries, violin experts have debated the secret of the renowned Cremona school of instrument makers SMITHSONIAN, October 1983), founded by Andrea Amati during the mid- 16th century and brought to perfection by Antonio Stradivarl and Gluseppe Guarneri "del Gesu" in the early 1700s. Was there something special about the wood they used) The varnish@ The filler? The thickness-, No one knows for sure, and in an attempt to find out, violin makers have tried everything from baking the raw wood in ovens to burying it in sand for years.
Now along comes Nagyvary, the latest and most controversial figure to enter the fray. One of his first creations had a golden hue imparted by soaking the wood in diluted urine. "He put a bucket in the men's room," recalls a co-worker, "and posted a sign saying 'Please contribute generously to violin research.' " Later, he developed an unorthodox method for hardening the wood via the application of chitin, which he obtained by boiling shrimp shells in a potassium hydroxide solution.
Other violin experts roll their eyes when Nagyvary starts talking; but in fact, employing the latest scientific equipment, he has identified some important differences between 18th-century Italian violins and those made today. First, he has determined that the wood of the older Italian instruments contains more open holes in its cell walls. lt also exhibits an unnaturally high sodium content. This leads Nagyvary to theorize that the Cremonese masters used wood floated downriver from the Alps to the saltwater lagoons of Venice, where microbial degradation over prolonged periods opened the holes, rendering the wood lighter, more resonant and more permeable. Should druggists get some of the credit? Nagyvary has also examined chips of varnish taken …