Berne, Sep 9 : A good violin depends on the quality of wood and the expertise of its maker. And the Stradivarius exemplifies best what makes a violin truly great.
Swiss researcher Francis WMR Schwarze, professor from Empa, Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, St. Gallen, Switzerland, has succeeded in modifying the wood for a violin through treatment with special fungi, making it sound indistinguishably similar to a Stradivarius.
In the late 17th and early 18th century, the famous violin maker Antonio Stradivari used a special wood that had grown in the cold period between 1645 and 1715. In the long winters and the cool summers, the wood grew especially slowly and evenly, creating low density and a high modulus of elasticity. Until now, modern violin makers could only dream of wood with such tonal qualities.
Schwarze's research could soon make similarly good wood available for violin making. He discovered two species of fungi (Physisporinus vitreus and Xylaria longipes), which decay Norway spruce and sycamore - the two important kinds of wood used for violin making - to such an extent that their tonal quality is improved, according to an Empa statement.
"Normally fungi reduce the density of the wood, but at the same time they unfortunately reduce the speed with which the sound waves travel through the wood," Schwarze explained.
"The unique feature of these fungi is that they gradually degrade the cell walls, thus inducing a thinning of the walls. But even in the late stages of the wood decomposition, a stiff scaffold structure remains via which the sound waves can still travel directly," he added.
Besides, the wood remains just as resistant to strain as before the fungal treatment - an important criterion for violin making.
Before the wood is further processed to a violin, it is treated with ethylene oxide gas. "No fungus can survive that," Schwarze said. That ensures that fungal growth in the wood of the violin is completely stopped.
Together with the violin makers Martin Schleske and Michael Rhonheimer, Schwarze developed violins made of mycowood (wood treated with wood decay fungi).
In 2009 the violins were played in a blind, behind-the-curtain test versus a genuine Stradivarius from 1711.
All the violins were played by the British violinist Matthew Trusler.
The result was surprising for all participants: Both the jury of experts and the majority of the audience thought that the mycowood violin that Schwarze had treated with fungi for nine months was the actual Stradivarius.
Schwarze presented these findings at the first ever ECRC "Franz-Volhard" Symposium of the Max Delbruck Centre for Molecular Medicine (MDC) and Charite-Universitatsmedizin in Berlin-Buch.