Book Review

Florian Fisch

Corinna Engelhardt:
Stradivari’s Heirs. How scientists uncover the secrets of the Stradivari.

2011. Leonardo Film, 2011
52 min., English and German
Available at (
Price: 11.90/15,90 EUR (DVD/Blu-ray)

Music Meets Biotech

A violin made of wood treated with a fungus beats a Stradivari in blind testing. A German TV documentary examines the science behind the sensation.

Before a new active substance is approved as a drug, it must undergo double-blind testing. After all, patients expect the best treatment available. The same rule does not apply to violins. A concert-goer listening to a famous soloist is likely to hear a Stradivarius, which, almost certainly, has never been proven to be superior to ordinary violins. The superiority of those old instruments built by the Italian grandmaster Antonio Stradivari is a myth.

Antique Stradivarius or modern fungal violin: Which one sounds best?

Light wood is best

This does not stop scientists from trying to discover the secret behind Stradivari’s instruments. One attempt is documented in the film Stradivari’s Heirs by Corinna Engelhardt. The 2012 TV production, recently released as a DVD, shows how researchers from the Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Material Science and Technology, are trying to produce tonewood of superior quality. Their trick: make the wood lighter through decomposition by a fungus.

What sounds strange for violin makers and soloists alike, seems an obvious approach for biotechnologists. If the right fungus is applied to tonewood of Norway Spruce (Picea abies), usually used for the top plate of the violin, the thickness of the cell walls can be reduced without compromising its overall stability and thus not reducing the speed of sound. The higher the speed of sound and the lower the density, the better the quality.

The film documents the whole process from tree selection, to wood treatment, to the making of a violin by the craftsman Michael Rhonheimer. The violin is evaluated in a computed tomography (CT) scanner and with 3D sound recordings. Intermingled with the story are sections about the city of Cremona, Italy, where Stradivari and other grand violin makers lived. It explains various theories about Stradivari’s success, from the skill of the craftsman, to a tonewood perfectly balanced by the cold climate during the Maunder Minimum (1645 to 1715) to the perfect varnish.

Unable to pick a Strad

Only the placebo effect is never discussed in the film, even though it has been studied repeatedly. The first aural test was reported as early as 1817 by the French National Academy. Many more followed, like the famous blind test broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1977, when two out of three famous violin experts misidentified a one year old violin for an expensive Stradivari. The latest addition to the series was a double-blind test published this year. Again, 21 experienced violinists were unable to tell priceless old Strads from new, high quality violins (PNAS, 2012, 3 Jan, epub).

Informed prejudice

In the film, the fungal violin is played in a blind test, organised at the meeting for tree care in Osnabrück, Germany, in 2009. Nobody seemed convinced that the fungal violin would stand a chance. Rhonheimer commented after the CT scan, “The longer treated violins have lost some of their structure, which makes it questionable whether the fungal treatment is such a good idea after all.” The engineer Kevin Farr, who conducted the 3D sound recordings, saw the superiority of a Stradivarius proven, as it shows, “a lot more reverberation in the room.” Sebastian Bohren, a soloist, preferred an untreated violin, “It just responds better.”

Despite these reservations, a jury of three musical experts and 180 participants at the meeting preferred the fungal violin over the untreated ones, including a Strad.

A straight story

The film is both informative and entertaining. However, it is clearly intended to be a TV documentary and lacks the characteristics of a great oeuvre. The conversations between protagonists are all too obviously staged role plays and little suspense is created. The potential for more was there. There is controversy between the artists and craftsmen on one side, who question the validity of blind testing for violin performance, and the scientists on the other side, who question the objectivity of the artists and craftsmen.

The film is still worth watching, especially if you are interested in violin making or wood treatment. Or if you want to experience wonderful examples of placebo effects far removed from clinical or pharmaceutical contexts. It is a treat to hear soloist Matthew Trusler, who owns a Stradivarius, being refreshingly honest after his performance at the blind test, “These new violins are really lovely violins and I would buy one and play one very happily. But my fiddle is my fiddle and I am a little sad that it didn’t win.”

Letzte Änderungen: 07.08.2013