One of the biggest mysteries about the opera "Médée" by late 18th-century composer Luigi Cherubini is why its last few pages are blacked out with charcoal. For centuries the opera was performed incomplete, but X-Ray technology developed by scientists at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) has allowed them to uncover the hidden score.
This allows operas across the world to perform the whole opera as Cherubini had created it 216 years before.
SLAC scientists used the technology in 2005 to retrieve a 10th century transcription of mathematical theories by the famous mathematician Archimedes. Written on goatskin, the theories had been written over and damaged from centuries of neglect. By tuning the X-Rays to detect the iron ink used to write the theories, scientists were able to read the thousand-year-old text.
When a German musical scholar, Heiko Cullman, noticed the damaged pages in Cherubini's score while studying the manuscript in 2008, he turned to SLAC to help him to extract the musical notes. Despite the discovery, the reason behind the blacking out of the last few pages of "Médée's" score remains a enigma.
"If it was the composer, why did he do it?" said Uwe Bergmann, Associate Lab director for the Linac Coherent Light Source at SLAC. "There is a theory that he may have just shortened it because people complained that it was too long."
"Médée" is a late-18th century opera based upon Euripide's tragedy, Medea. The opera was created in the later part of the French Revolution, a time that saw the creation of thousands of new theatrical productions. Cherubini's "Médée" is said to continue to be produced not only because of its story, but also for its emotional and original score.
"'Médée' was the first opera I had to deal with in my function as music dramaturge (theatrical advisor) at the opera house in Giessen, Germany," Heiko Cullman, the Berlin musical scholar who contacted SLAC for assistance in uncovering the final parts of Cherubini's score. "Then, in 1998, I noticed that there was no good edition and I decided to work on a new and better one."
Bergmann and his team used the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) X-Rays which were focused to a beam 50 microns across, much smaller than the width of a human hair -- to see through the paper that the score was on and the carbon that covered parts of the last two pages of the music. Through research of Cherubini's score, Bergmann found that the blacked-out pages contained two metallic compounds on them: the iron gall ink that Cherubini used to write his notes, and the zinc ink used to make the pre-printed musical lines. Bergmann tuned the high-energy X-Rays of the SSRL to detect signatures from iron and zinc, allowing the machine to cut through the charcoal and paper that the notes were on. Using the tiny beam, the team went line-by-line and over the course of a night scanned both sides of the page. By morning Cherubini's hidden score had been uncovered.
"There are multiple examples where they have used the same technique to look at master paintings," Bergmann said. "Van Gogh and Rembrandt had paintings covered by other paintings, and this technique has been used to uncover other paintings underneath the paintings. I think there will be many more but how to get them is hard."
With the notes now exposed, a new question has arisen: Should the score, hidden for the last two-centuries, be performed?
"Would Cherubini have been upset if we had said, 'we can bring these notes back to light and back to life?'" Bergmann said. "He probably didn't expect that in the 21st century (people) would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for a grand performance of his opera."
A computer-generated version of the uncovered piece has been published online, but it has yet to be performed by a live opera. This may change soon.
Says Cullman, "It is my hope that one day the opera "Médée" can be performed (or recorded) in its original and complete version as it was intended by the composer Luigi Cherubini."