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Normally, finding mold on your instrument would make any violinist panic. Fungus needs heat and moisture to grow, both of which are deadly to the delicate woods used to make stringed instruments. But according to new research from Switzerland, fungus could be the secret to making a ho-hum violin indistinguishable from a Stradivarius – one of the most highly prized violins in the world.
Swiss wood researcher Professor Francis W. M. R. Schwarze knows that 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. Because these trees had slowly matured during cool summers and long, hard winters, they had lower density and a higher modulus of elasticity than other woods. The result is a wood with amazing tonal quality, making Stradivarii some of the most expensive violins in history.
But Professor Schwarze wasn’t convinced that he’d have to wait for the stars to align before he could find wood like that again. 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. Normally when wood gets moldy, it becomes less dense, eventually decaying away into wood chips. Schwarze’s fungi, on the other hand, “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.” Even though the fungus has eaten away some of the wood, it’s still resistant to strain, a quality that’s very important to violin makers. Once the desired tone has been achieved, the violin is treated with ethylene oxide gas, killing all the fungus and ensuring that you don’t have an allergic reaction every time you play.
In 2009, violins made with Schwarze’s fungally-treated wood 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 Strad.