Walküre Microlude

What is a microlude? The term was apparently coined by a Hungarian avant-garde composer named György Kurtág, born 1926, pretty old if still alive, who wrote (in 1977) a composition titled “12 Microludes for String Quartet — Hommage à András Mihály.” You can hear it on YouTube with the Maxwell Quartet; very dissonant, very short pieces (12 microludes in less than 10 minutes). Thus the term was coined; but it was made famous in 2011 by the New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross who wrote a long piece in the issue of April 25, 2011 entitled ” Secret Passage: Decoding ten bars in Wagner’s ‘Ring.'”

In his article, Ross observed that the Ring has a score of 2,000 pages and parts for 34 characters, “and requires a monster orchestra that includes … eighteen anvils,” and is arguably “the most ambitious work of art ever attempted.” Despite its grandeur of scale and ambition, however, the Ring is “made up of hundreds of intimate moments,” one of which is a 30-second passage in the early part of Act II of the Walküre that Ross seizes on and finds in it the secret of the Ring, if not of the universe itself; and he certainly convinces me, so perhaps I can convince you.

Mr. Ross has conducted varied, formidable, indeed exhaustive, research on the Walküre microlude, including interviews with conductors James Levine, Christian von Dohnányi, Justin Brown, Simon Rattle, and Simone Young, plus Wagnerian soprano Stephanie Blythe. Dohnányi says those ten bars are the Wendepunkt, the turning point, of the entire Ring. Levine finds the passage hopeless, tense, and haunting. Ross calls it “a solitary spasm of regret.”

With all those encomia sizzling in my head, when I read the Ross piece in 2011 I realized it would take some digging to find and listen to the microlude, and set the article aside. It surfaced during the recent long Thanksgiving weekend, when my office building was closed for repairs and I had the opportunity to look for the microlude and listen to it. Digging out my ancient vocal score of Walküre (price still on it, $2.50, giving a hint of its age), and following the directions in the Ross article, and writing to the author for clarification (which he promptly and kindly furnished) I located the passage in the score, and then began to look for it online. As a subscriber to the Met Opera on Demand, I searched for performances of Walküre and selected the most recent one in the archive, on May 4. 2011, with Levine conducting Voigt, Blythe, and Terfel. Then it was just a matter of synchronizing the score and the performance until I had the microlude pinned down.

But how to isolate and download it? That was way beyond my tech skills, so I turned it over to a professional techie and even he was challenged and had to import some fancy software but finally did the job, and here it is

I hope you’ll agree that it contains, indeed, the secret of the Ring if not also the mystery of the universe.

Thomas Lemann

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Sheet music

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