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A 1703 Stradivarius (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nearly every accomplished violinist lusts after a Stradivarius instrument, but few will ever own one. The number of surviving violins from Antonio Stradivari’s workshop has been estimated at fewer than 700. Instruments are seldom offered for sale, and the few that are command stratospheric prices. In 2006, a Strad sold at auction for over US$3.5 million.

Not surprisingly, many modern instrument makers and researchers have tried to duplicate the sound of a Strad, or at least to determine its secret. No one has yet conclusively done either.

The latest to claim he’s built a modern Stradivarius is Francis Schwarze of the Zurich-based Federal Materials, Science and Technology Institute. His secret: mushrooms.

Schwarze asserts that treating the maple wood used for the violin with Xylaria Longipes mushrooms, which grow on the bark of trees, reduces the wood’s density and at least comes closer to mimicing the unique Stradivarius sound.

However, many other researchers have suggested that the wood used in Stradivari’s violins was actually denser than usual. Between 1645 and 1750, extraordinarily cool temperatures in Europe caused trees to grow more slowly.

Still other scholars attribute the instruments’ distinctive sound to Stradivari’s subtle changes in the shape of the instrument.

Perhaps Schwarze has indeed discovered a way to make a better-sounding (or at least different-sounding) violin. But has he really duplicated the sound of a Stradivarius? The jury’s still out.

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