(Concerto No. 2 in G Major 1st Movement by Joseph Haydn Cadenza by Ferdinand Küchler)
A few months ago, an important discovery was made in the world of violin making. A test was done to see whether a violin like the Stradivarius could be created. Amazingly, it was with the help of Francis Schwarze of the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research and a Swiss violin maker, Michael Rhonheimer. The test was to see if fungi treated wood could create similar wood that was used when Stradivarious created his violins. This article was published in Science Daily, New Scientist, and Live Science.
During Stradivarious’s time, he used wood with a low density, which was abundant in the cold weather between 1645 and 1715. The reason that scientists chose fungi in this experiment was because fungi break down rotting wood, and in doing this, they change the cell structure of the wood, which creates a lower density in the wood. This structural change makes a lighter wood that is similar to the wood Stradivarius used to create his violins.
Here is a video that shows how the weather affects wood, and about the history of the Stradivarious violins.
This test used five violins. Four would be made from the same type of wood and one would be treated for six months, one for nine months, and the other two were untreated. The other violin would be a Stradivarius. The violins were treated with two different types of fungi. One was Physisporinus vitreus, which was on the spruce top half of the instrument and they other was Xylaria longipes (Dead Man’s Fingers), which was for the sycamore bottom half of the instrument. They tested these instruments by having a British violinist, Mathew Trusler, play the four instruments in front of an audience of 180 people at the Osnabrücker Baumpflegetagen conference in Germany, which focused on forestry. The instruments were played behind a curtain and the audience judged their tone. 90 out of the 180 people thought that the violin treated for nine months had the best tone quality and 113 of the people thought that it was the Stradivarius that was being played. The Stradivarius came in second with 39 people.
This test will help create new violins, which can have high quality and be sold for around $25,000 instead of over two million. Also, more musicians will be able to afford quality instruments, which will increase the number of classical musicians. The only problem concerning this test is that violin tone quality is a subjective matter. To one person, a violin might sound dull and have no timbre, but to another person it might sound clear and have a vibrant tone. The average person can tell the difference between a $50 violin and a $1,000,000, but this test could have had different results if done with a different group of people. This test might have been more accurate if professional musicians or violin makers were used because they have trained ears that can pick out quality sounds better than the average person.
To get more information on the fungi used in this experiment, I contacted the microbiologist Moselio Schaechter. His blog, Small Things Considered, had a blog post about the Stradivarius violin test, so I asked him the following questions:
1. Do you know how and or why the process of this decaying of the wood by the fungi takes place?
2. Do you know if this is just these certain types of fungi or are there others that can create these instruments?
Here is an excerpt from Moselio Schaechter’s response to my email:
“Fungi are the ‘Great Recyclers’. They can digest almost anything (short of some man-made plastics), including wood. They are the reason why old trees become dust (in time). If it weren’t for the fungi, you couldn’t walk into a forest without a chain-saw. In fact, life would eventually come to a halt because so much carbon would be retained in old trees and other plants without being recycled into carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide has a bad name now because of global warming, but some of it is essential for photosynthesis, that is, for life on Earth. So, fungi are essential for life on this planet.
It’s not surprising that the scientists who worked on the violins chose fungi to make the wood thinner. No other living organisms would have worked. The way fungi decompose wood is by making enzymes which they secrete into their environment. Some of these enzymes have the ability to chew (break down) constituents of the cell walls that make wood solid. These walls are stiff because they contain a complicated chemical polymer called lignin. The enzyme that works on it is called ligninase.
Some fungi are better at decomposing certain woods than others. This is why the scientists chose one fungus for the top of the violin, which is made of spruce, and another one for the bottom, which is made of sycamore. This way, they gave themselves the best chance of getting the desired thinness in the wood.”
How could different types of fungi make wood with different qualities? Can fungi be used to improve the wood quality for uses other than violins and other instruments? Are there any other factors that contribute to the lowering of wood density?