It was a combination of fine ingredients. The finest wood, superior craftsmanship and chemicals bought at the corner apocathry. Sugar? Borax? Wood soaked in a salt-water solution? Quartz from the mountains and ground-up Venetian glass? Alchemical treatises of the time offered plentiful recipes for preserving wood and furniture.
Modern American luthiers really are not engaged in an activity all that different either. A couple years ago New York luthier, Guy Rabut, on NPR described his own workshop as being an alchemist's den, and talked about how surprisngly unchanged violin-making remains today from what it was in the 18th century. "We use," he says, "the exact same wood, carve using virtually the same tools, and fashion our violins in the same ways, using the same resins and polishes."
Modern-day American luthiers still take about four months to handwork their instruments and so much carving, polishing and adjusting goes into making them, that many musicians believe these hand-crafted instruments possess a personality of their own-- a soul, if you will.
This is the thing. Science just has not figured out everything that there is to know about these violins. Kashmiris will tell you that the more you walk on a fine rug, the more beautiful it will become. These old violins, though, take this to a new level, for as the great violinists tell us, they have to play their instrument constantly to keep it sounding as it should. But no one knows exactly why.
So, in walks Joseph Nagyvary. A man on a quest, he wanted to find out exactly what contributed to the unsurpassed sound of the antique instruments not just for the simple pleasure of uncovering the secret, but because he loved music and wanted modern luthiers to have all the knowledge at their disposal so that they too could produce the best sound quality possible. So, he spent the next 25 years of his life experimenting. It was experiment after experiment.
From 1976-1984, for example, he did a lot of experimenting with shrimp shells!
And, what did a lifetime of work yield?
Well, Nagyvary violins are now a name of their own. Some very famous soloists even use them (including Yehudi Menuhin, who played on one for 15 years). He goes up again and again in competitions that pit his violins against strads. Playing in front of a panal of music specialists, leading soloists perform blind tests of the two instruments: old and new. Again and again, it's a close draw. One comment seems to come to the surface again and again during these "shows", and that is-- well, the Cremonese instruments sound "warmer."
Still, that really isn't too shabby since that "warmer sound" will cost you several millions of dollars (compared to around $15,000 for a Nagyvary violin and $18,000 for a Rabut). And all the experts point out that these modern great violins may well become the strads of the future-- since time is one of the necessary ingredients of the magic. The instruments need to be played-- for centuries, it seems-- to attain that quality.
During the 2005 Einstein Centennial Celebration (part of the World Year of Physics), in what was the last event of the year, held in Tokyo, Dr. Nagyvary was invited to give the keynote address. Captivating his audience, he once again described his quest. He then asked Japanese virtuoso Mariko Senju to play one of his instruments (a baby at only 4 weeks old!) and the gathered scientists then analyzed the sound quality. His instruments performed favorably as usual and he was presented with a gold medal and the special silk robe usually presented by the Japanese government to foreign dignataries. He said, "the Japanese treated me like royalty."
Well, the achievements of his life work as represented by his new violin was one reason. The main reason, though, hints Nagyvary, is that the Japanese love Einstein. Nagyvary said, "Einstein played the violin every day. Many Japanese physicists know this, and some of the older ones there knew Einstein personally, and that was why I was invited to give my presentation." The Japanese physicists, he said, believed that Einstein would have very much enjoyed his speech on the scientific explanation behind the music of the antique violins.
I think he would have too.