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Stanford X-Rays Bring a 200-Year-Old Opera Back to Life

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When, 216 years ago, someone mysteriously blacked out pages from the French opera Médée with charcoal, the music was lost to history. Now, scientists at Stanford’s National Accelerator Laboratory have brought those long-lost notes back to life.

The smudged out pages of the 1797 score of Médée and the new reconstruction, made by shooting X-rays at the paper to reveal the notes beneath. (SLAC)

The smudged out pages of the 1797 score of Médée and the new reconstruction, made by shooting X-rays at the paper to reveal the notes beneath. (SLAC)

Maria Luigi Carlo Zenobio Salvatore Cherubini was born in Florence, Italy in 1760. He befriended Beethoven in Vienna and died in Paris in 1842.

Cherubini was a renowned composer, but — according to legend — critics thought his opera “Médée,” based on the Greek tale of vengeance, dragged on a bit.

Maybe that’s why Cherubini, or someone else, used charcoal to smudge out a page and a half of the score.

Two hundred and sixteen years later, scientists at Stanford used X-rays to detect iron in the ink Cherubini had used.

Scientists bombarded the score with an X-ray beam produced by SLAC’s synchrotron lightsource. The beam, narrower than a human hair, caused iron particles in the original ink to release X-ray fluorescence, allowing scientists to distinguish the ink from the charcoal that had obscured it.

“We scan the beam across, back and forth, back and forth,” said SLAC physicist Uwe Bergmann, “and every time this thin X-ray beam hits one of those iron particles in the ink, it sends out this flourescent signal.”

The X-rays were also able to detect zinc in the ink used to print horizontal staff lines onto the paper.

After about eight hours of scanning per page, the score became visible, and the music — the final lines of the aria “Du trouble affreux qui me dévore” (“The terrible disorder that consumes me”) — could finally be played.

Top Left: The staff lines were printed with ink containing large quantities of zinc. When the sensors only look for X-rays associated with zinc, the obscured staff lines become clearly visible. Top Right: The handwritten musical notes were drawn using an iron gall ink. When focusing on only X-rays associated with iron, the musical notes reappear from behind the black smudges. Bottom Left: The front of the page combining the musical staffs and notes. Bottom Right: The back of the page. (SLAC)

Top Left: The staff lines were printed with ink containing large quantities of zinc. When the sensors only look for X-rays associated with zinc, the obscured staff lines become clearly visible. Top Right: The handwritten musical notes were drawn using an iron gall ink. When focusing on only X-rays associated with iron, the musical notes reappear from behind the black smudges. Bottom Left: The front of the page combining the musical staffs and notes. Bottom Right: The back of the page. (SLAC)

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About the Author ()

As a radio reporter for KQED Science, Amy's grappled with archaic maps, brain fitness exercises, albino redwood trees, and jet-lagged lab rats, as well as modeled a wide variety of hard hats and construction vests. Long before all that, she learned to cut actual tape interning for a Latin American news show at WBAI in New York, then took her first radio job as a producer for Pulse of the Planet. Since then, Amy has been an editor at Salon.com, the editor of Terrain Magazine, and has produced stories for NPR, Living on Earth, Philosophy Talk, and Pop Up Magazine. She's also a founding editor of Meatpaper Magazine.