MENLO PARK -- Hidden for two centuries, concealed notes of a historic opera have been revealed, thanks to the X-ray vision at Stanford University's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.
Measure by measure, the closing score of the French masterpiece "Médée" -- darkly smudged over with charcoal -- was illuminated by powerful X-ray light emitted by SLAC's synchrotron and transmitted to computer screens for easy viewing.
When contemporary critics complained that the three-hour opera was too long, composer Luigi Cherubini blacked out its coda, according to legend.
Now musicians have the full length of the original 1797 piece.
"It is very exciting," said Stanford physicist Uwe Bergmann, who guided the work. The synchrotron "can unlock the secrets of nature ... But it can also find things that are important to our human culture -- with an impact that is just as high, maybe even higher."
Stored in a drawer at Stanford Library, the final pages of the aria "Du trouble affreux qui me dévore" ("The terrible disorder that consumes me") offered no clues to the unaided eye.
"We could see nothing" under the charcoal, Bergmann said.
But the synchrotron's X-ray detected the iron in the old ink and the zinc in the printed music staff, causing them to fluoresce. The carbon smudges were nearly transparent to the X-ray beam.
The scientists focused their X-ray beam to 50 microns across -- smaller than the width of a human hair -- to scan the document line by line.
A computer converted the X-ray patterns into shades of gray, readily recognizable as notes.
"It is indescribable to see Cherubini's notes after more than 200 years for the first time again," wrote Heiko Cullmann of Berlin, the musical scholar who first contacted SLAC to suggest the project. The same tool brought to light ancient Greek text in a rare document of the mathematician Archimedes, unreadable due to centuries of neglect and damage.
It also detected chemicals within the fossilized organs of the feathered dinosaur archaeopteryx, anatomical information critical to understanding the evolutionary link between reptiles and birds.
Cherubini was considered one of the supreme musical craftsmen of his time, although he lacked a Beethoven-size vision and never became a household name.
"Médée" is a historically important opera, based on the mythical Greek heroine Medea, who murders her two children for revenge against an unfaithful husband. It shocked Parisians and was said to have influenced Beethoven's "Fidelio" and Bizet's "Carmen."
Cullmann, a visiting scholar at Stanford from Germany, knew that SLAC scientists had uncovered Archimedes' hidden text and wondered if they could restore "Médée." So a frame was built to protect the manuscript, and it was carefully carried to the synchrotron for analysis.
Bergmann has struggled with the notion that maybe the notes were meant to remain concealed.
"But science is value free. You want to bring it out, then hand it over to scholars," he said. "I don't think he would have minded, 200 years later, if we are still interested enough in his work to perform the entire piece."
Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.