It would seem that most of us can recall at least one instance when we stumbled over a long-lost treasure. The occasional trip to the attic or a weekend search through our own backyards bring back bountiful memories as we sift through great grandma’s keepsake or a secret heir-loom that we had long given up for lost. Often times we are painfully unaware of the value of the memento we hold in our hands.
Years ago I remember reading how one lady picked up a discarded cello that was destined for the trash heap. Not knowing that this particular instrument was one of only sixty that had been hand-crafted by the great instrument maker Antonio Stradivari in 1684, plans were made to carve it into a hinge-bearing CD holder (1). Fortunately for all concerned this story had a happy ending. In fact, the lady’s plans were narrowly averted as she read about the disappearance of the 3.5 million dollar masterpiece (2).
For music lovers, the name Stradivarius (Latinized form of Stradivari) epitomizes quality. “In the music world,” writes one reviewer “Stradivarius is an untouchable description. Neither scientist nor musician understand the difference between the voice of a Stradivarius versus the voice of modern violins and cellos, but the distinction is real- and costly” (1). Now scientists have trumped the master craftsman by using, of all things, mushrooms (3).
In a report that appeared in Swiss Info in October 2009, wood scientist Francis Schwarze outlined just how he and violin maker Michael Rhonheimer achieved a task that was once deemed impossible (3). By using two filamentous fungi, Physiporinus vitrius and Xylaria longipes, Schwarze was able to selectively decompose wood cells from the inside thereby forever altering the wood’s acoustic properties (3-4). The fungi also opened up the cytosolic membranes of these dead cells- a feature that allowed sound to more easily penetrate the wood (3). Rhonheimer then did what he does best- he made a sensational instrument.
In September of the same year world-class British violinist Matthew Trusler pitted five violins against each other including one Stradivarius and two ‘mushroomed wood’ prototypes, to determine which would yield the best overall tonal quality (4). Behind closed curtains, experts convened for a ‘blind’ hearing test (4). Out of the 180+ expert votes cast, 90 went to the ‘mushroomed’ violins (4). Disappointingly the Stradivarius was way down on numbers- only 39 votes in its favor (4).
Still, the 17th century icon has historically been the man to beat. Beyond myth and folklore, one possible explanation for the uniqueness of his instruments centers around an oft-talked about ‘mini ice age’, the Maunder Minimum, that gripped much of central Europe during the 1600s (5). According to National Geographic journalist John Pickrell, “a sharp dip in temperatures between 1645 and 1715 coincided with a reduction in sunspots and the sun’s overall activity” (5). The ensuing slow down in tree growth might have given rise to an acoustically superior wood for budding carpenters to then use in their enterprising work (5). Some experts however remain unconvinced. In fact the wood found in 17th century violins shows both closely- and distantly-spaced growth rings, contravening the predictions of the Maunder Minimum hypothesis (5).
From time to time critics will question the superiority of Stradivarius claiming that violins other than Schwarze’s and Rhonheimer’s are every bit as good as their older counterparts (5). Yet there is no denying the significance of the latest feat. Those who shared the pleasure of watching Paul Stamets deliver his ground-breaking lecture on the bioremediation properties of fungi at the end of last year (6) will no doubt appreciate the ever-growing list of potential applications for these fastidious organisms. For my part, I have added Rhonheimer’s studio in Baden to my list of possible go-to places when I next visit Switzerland. After all, my home town of Villmergen is just a few miles away.
- Jill Carratini (2008) Lost And Found, Slice 1741. Slice Of Infinity.
- Stolen Stradivarius almost ended up as CD holder. USA Today 19th May, 2004.
- Christian Raaflaub (2009) “Mushroom Violin” Outplays Stradivarius. Swiss Info October 21, 2009.
- Fungus-treated violin beats Strad in blind test. World Science.
- John Pickrell (2004) Did “Little Ice Age” Create Stradivarius Violins’ Famous Tone? National Geographic News January 7, 2004.
- For further details on Stamets’ work see How Mushrooms Can Save The World (Login: Promega; Password: mushroom).