Four modern violins by Michael Rhonheimer and one Stradivarius made in 1711
Material scientist Francis W.M.R. Schwarze believed that biotechnology could modify contemporary woods to possess the acoustic properties found in the centuries-old violins produced by masters of violin-making’s Golden Age.
Schwarze used varying amounts of fungal decay to modify the density of the woods used in two violins built by Michael Ronheimer. An acoustic tone test was then arranged at the annual Osnabrücker Baumpflegetagen (forestry conference).
English violinist Matthew Trusler would play the same piece on five violins, in a blind test including a Stradivarius worth two million dollars built in 1711, two Rhonheimer violins built of untreated wood, and two Rhonheimer violins built from wood subjected to varying amounts of decay.
Science Daily reports the astonishing result: Schwarze’s biotech defeated the workmanship of Stradivarius.
Of the more than 180 attendees, an overwhelming number – 90 persons – felt the tone of the fungally treated violin “Opus 58” to be the best. Trusler’s stradivarius reached second place with 39 votes, but amazingly enough 113 members of the audience thought that “Opus 58” was actually the strad! “Opus 58” is made from wood which had been treated with fungus for the longest time, nine months.
Francis W.M.R. Schwarze, et. al. Superior wood for violins – wood decay fungi as a substitute for cold climate
Violins produced by Antonio Stradivari during the late 17th and early 18th centuries are reputed to have superior tonal qualities. Dendrochronological studies show that Stradivari used Norway spruce that had grown mostly during the Maunder Minimum, a period of reduced solar activity when relatively low temperatures caused trees to lay down wood with narrow annual rings, resulting in a high modulus of elasticity and low density.
The main objective was to determine whether wood can be processed using selected decay fungi so that it becomes acoustically similar to the wood of trees that have grown in a cold climate (i.e. reduced density and unchanged modulus of elasticity).
This was investigated by incubating resonance wood specimens of Norway spruce (Picea abies) and sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) with fungal species that can reduce wood density, but lack the ability to degrade the compound middle lamellae, at least in the earlier stages of decay.
Microscopic assessment of the incubated specimens and measurement of five physical properties (density, modulus of elasticity, speed of sound, radiation ratio, and the damping factor) using resonance frequency revealed that in the wood of both species there was a reduction in density, accompanied by relatively little change in the speed of sound. Thus, radiation ratio was increased from ‘poor’ to ‘good’, on a par with ‘superior’ resonance wood grown in a cold climate.
It is possible to listen to this kind of comparison oneself. Ruggiero Ricci played the same opening of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 (1866) on 15 important violins, including examples by Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivarius, on a record titled The Glory of Cremona, currently regrettably out-of-print and expensive.
But all 15 Ricci performances and 3 additions are available via YouTube vidoes, linked here.
Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.