X-rays restore lost aria from Cherubini’s Médée

Researchers at Stanford University’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have recovered the final aria of Luigi Cherubini’s opera Médée 216 years after the composer destroyed it in a fit of pique. When Médée debuted on March 13th, 1797, at the Théâtre Feydeau in Paris where he was the house composer, critics were unimpressed, declaring it too long. As the story goes, in response to this slight, Cherubini blackened out the last aria, “Du trouble affreux qui me dévore” (“The terrible disorder that consumes me”), with charcoal. Just like that, 500 bars were gone.

The opera is now acknowledged as the artist’s greatest masterpiece, but for almost 200 years it wasn’t even performed in the original French. Cherubini produced an Italian translation, Medea, which premiered in Vienna in 1802, and in 1855 German composer Franz Lachner staged a German translation of the Vienna version to which he added recitatives in place of the original dialogue. Lachner’s iteration was then translated back into Italian and it’s that version which became the popular staging for most of the 20th century. In the 1980s, the French opera began to be performed again, and in 1997 an unabridged version was staged at Lincoln Center in honor of the opera’s 200th birthday.

Unabridged except for those missing 500 bars, that is. Those seemed to be lost for good, until Heiko Cullmann, a Berlin music scholar visiting Stanford University, read about the SLAC’s successes using the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) to reveal writing concealed by other writing, like the Archimedes palimpsest and explorer David Livingstone’s berry ink diary. He suggested SLAC turn its blindingly bright light onto Cherubini’s original manuscript at the Stanford Library to scan the blacked out aria.

When Cherubini composed Médée in 1797, ink contained a large amount of metal. In the case of Cherubini’s manuscript, the handwritten notes were written with iron gall ink, which, as the name suggests, contained a large amount of iron. The manuscript pages Cherubini wrote on came preprinted with the horizontal lines of the musical staff. These printed lines contained a high level of zinc.

By setting their sensors to look for X-ray energies associated with zinc and iron, the scientists literally had X-ray vision: The charcoal smudges – and even the paper itself – mostly contained carbon and would be almost completely transparent to the X-ray beam.

The scientists focused their X-ray beam down to 50 microns across – smaller than the width of a human hair. Slowly the scientists scanned the document line by line, moving left to right and right to left as the beam worked its way down the page. Each side of the page took about eight hours to scan.

Since the carbon is invisible, after hours of scanning researchers had a jumble of notes because Cherubini wrote on the front and back of the page. They surmounted this obstacle in a delightfully low-tech way: by collating according to note orientation. The composer consistently wrote notes with the ball at the bottom facing right, so the team went through the scans by hand and separated the right-facing from the left-facing notes. Literally overnight, the aria that had been lost for centuries was found.

As a musician, Bergmann did worry that he was violating Cherubini’s artistic choices by uncovering the aria the maestro had hidden, but ultimately he concluded that Cherubini probably wouldn’t mind that more than two centuries after Parisian critics pooh-poohed his masterpiece, people still want to hear it as he first wrote it.

The complete sheet music is now available and some opera company is sure to stage the full Médée soon. Without further ado, here is “Du trouble affreux qui me dévore.”