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X-rays resurrect 200-year-old lost aria

Posted June 12, 2013
Thick smudges black out parts of an aria from Luigi Cherubini's 1797 opera 'Médée.' Credit: Uwe Bergmann / SLAC

Thick smudges black out parts of an aria from Luigi Cherubini’s 1797 opera ‘Médée.’ Credit: Uwe Bergmann / SLAC

Thanks to scientists at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, audiences can hear a 200-year-old opera by composer Luigi Cherubini in full for the first time in centuries. The scientists blasted X-rays at the damaged musical score to peek at the musical notes hidden beneath a layer of smudgy black.

At first glance the beautifully bound 1797 Luigi Cherubini opera Médée looks like an impeccably preserved relic of opera’s golden age. However, flip to the final pages of the aria “Du trouble affreux qui me dévore” (“The terrible disorder that consumes me”) and you see the problem: Thick smudges of carbon completely black out the closing lines.

Now, for the first time in over 200 years, Cherubini’s most famous opera can be heard in full, thanks to physicists from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. The scientists used X-rays to glimpse at the lost musical notes concealed under the carbon smear.

“It was amazing to be able to see the complete aria,” said physicist Uwe Bergmann, the interim director of the SLAC Linac Coherent Light Source. “For me, uncovering the composition of a genius’ work that had been lost for centuries is as thrilling as trying to uncover one of the big secrets of nature.”

Musical mangling

Cherubini was widely considered to be one of the greatest composers of his time. Even Ludwig van Beethoven held him in high regard, admiring Cherubini’s ability to “weave his polyphonic virtuosity, classical stylistic polish and a truly Romantic sense of drama into music of extraordinary depth and dramatic power.”

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