Composer Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) wrote his French comic opera Médée in 1797 and it was well received – but critics said it was too long. So Cherubini decided to delete part of the aria Du trouble affreux qui me dévore, erasing part of the score with black smudges.
German opera scholar Heike Cullman approached Stanford University Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) physicist and associate lab director Uwe Bergmann in the hope that technology could reveal the lost music.
Scientists at the University of Manchester and the SLAC used an intense X-ray to reveal the music hidden under the black (see video above)
‘If you look at the piece, you can literally see nothing’, Bergmann said of the blackened pages. ‘The smudge is completely opaque to the human eye’.
Bergmann used a Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) to highlight the iron in Cherubini’s ink and the zinc of the printed staves – while the black smudges contained mostly carbon.
Bergmann said ‘for me uncovering the composition of a genius's work that had been lost for centuries is as thrilling as trying to uncover one of the big secrets of nature.’
Dr Ray Wogelius, a geochemist from the University of Manchester, is used to using this technology to examine fossils that are 150 million years old. But Wogelius says ‘it was exciting to help retrieve the lost notes of the opera… [the X-ray] resurrects the score absolutely brilliantly – you can see everything. You can see the text, the notation for the different instruments and the lyrics that are written in.’