Striking the right chord

By Akrita Reyar | Updated: Sep 25, 2014, 17:11 PM IST

Akrita Reyar Aficionados of refined music are in for a surprise. The perfect string instrument, the Stradivarius, has been outdone. In a competition that sent shockwaves around the world, the Stradivarius was beaten by a modern day violin made of wood and treated by fungus. In a daring attempt to bust the invincibility of the 17th century instrument, an Empa scientist Franciz Schwarze collaborated with Swiss violinmaker Michael Rhonheimer and put to test their modern creation called Opus 58 against the instrument.

A panel of experts as well as the audience at the 27th German conference, “Osnabrücker Baumpflegetagen”, listened to the Stradivarius priced at USD 2 million along with four biotech violins, which were all played behind a curtain. Of the four of the modern creations, two violins were treated with fungus and two were not. All the instruments were played by the renowned British violinist Matthew Trusler. Not only did over a 100 of the 180 conference members mistake the Opus 58 as the Stradivarius, 90 among the judges and audience also found its tone better. Interestingly, Opus 58 had been treated with fungus for nine months, which was considerably longer than the other fungally treated instruments. Trusler’s Strad had to settle at the second place with only 30 participants preferring it the most. Stradivarius has been for centuries considered so faultless and with a sound so virtuous, that the term itself has entered the language to denote something perfect in any field. It follows that the violin comes with a staggering price tag. The highest known auction bid of USD 3,544,000 was made in the year 2006 by an individual for a Stradivarius named Hammer made in 1707. Other Strads named after famous musicians or even cities are believed to be worth even more.

About the Stradivarius The story of the Stradivarius goes back to the 1660s when Antonio Stradivari, considered to have been a disciple of Nicolo Amati of Cremona, Italy, set up a shop to sell and repair stringed instruments. Antonio started using a combination of woods like willow, maple and spruce along with minerals, gum, honey and egg to create pieces, which produced such fine timbre that they instantly became a rage and remain legendary till this date. The most famous names including fictional ones like Sherlock Holmes, besides, of course, grand masters of music possessed Strads, whose price ranged from a few thousand dollars to a few million. It is for these reasons that these violins are mostly out of reach of individuals and belong to conservatories, trusts, societies or institutes. The Stradivarius produced in the “golden period” 1690-1720 are considered the best. This could probably have been because from the 1600s till a few years into 1700s, the weather is believed to have been intensely cold and the quality of wood, due to the slower but sturdier growth of trees, seemed to have been particularly suited to produce high-class violins.

Modern violins no second fiddle Interestingly, this is not the first time that a Stradivarius has been compared in blind tests. A test conducted by the BBC in the 1970s is among the most famous cases, when a violin made by British Roland Praill challenged the Strad. The results were equally remarkable as the acoustic quality of the two instruments was closely similar. Coming back to the Osnabrücker experiment last month, the test is being considered subjective and thus not conclusive. After all, a particular sound appealing to the ear cannot be taken as a definitive measure. Nor is there any scientific method to precisely judge the quality of sound. What was more noteworthy, however, was that the Stradivarius that was tested was made by the master Antonio Stradivari himself in 1711 and thus was among the finest of instruments ever produced. The creator of Opus 58, Franciz Schwarze believes that the fungal treatment he gave to the wood changed its cell structure, which helped produce a warmer and more rounded sound. With the Stradivarius’ bastion of high honour stormed, and it being dethroned by a new invention, it will undoubtedly open a plethora of debate about the instrument. On the positive side it would also mean that musicians would be able to obtain a high quality violin at a fraction of the cost. So, it may not be such bad news after all, even though it may break a few hearts.