An interesting fact-checking question arose when I was finishing up my recent piece on Wagner's Walküre. Published sources disagreed about the exact wording of a crucial line that Sieglinde sings in Act III, when she hails Brünnhilde as the savior of her yet-to-be-born child Siegfried: "O hehrstes Wunder! Herrliche Maid!" ("O noblest wonder! Glorious woman!") That's what it says in the full score, but quite a few reputable books make it "Herrlichste Maid!" ("Most glorious woman!") — and so do many famous sopranos on record. What gives? Madeleine Baverstam, the fact-checker, and I contacted several authorities, including the Wagner archive in Bayreuth, and the answer came back: "Herrliche" is correct. Wagner had it that way when he first published his Ring libretto, in a private printing in 1853. (There it says, "Du hehrstes Wunder! herrliche Maid!") But when the composer wrote out the first draft of Walküre, he either changed his mind or made a slip of the pen, and it became "Herrlichste." Karl Klindworth used that draft to make the vocal score of the opera, and his reduction remains in circulation. Wagner reverted to "Herrliche" when he made a fair copy of the full score, as the critical report in the Wagner Gesamtausgabe observes, and the first published score faithfully followed him (although it contains many other errors, as the conductor Simone Young pointed out to me when we spoke).
How much difference does a superlative make? Not a great deal, perhaps: the essential import remains the same. Yet substituting "Herrliche" for "Herrlichste" might slightly ease the life of the working singer, since the latter is more of a mouthful. Maybe that's why Wagner chose it in the end. In any case, I'll take any excuse to zero in on this tremendous moment. The great wheeling melody that is here introduced will return only at the very end of the Ring, in the final minutes of Götterdämmerung: over it Brünnhilde sings the words "Feel how my breast also burns," and it soars in the violins in the closing bars. There has long been a certain controversy around Wagner's decision to finish the saga with so luxurious a theme. George Bernard Shaw, the unsentimental Wagnerite, found it cheap and retrogressive, like the entire opera. (He once proposed the alternative title Götterdämmerung: or, The Relapse of the Teetotaler.) For me, it communicates the sense of innocence, of atavistic human hope, that Wagner allows amid his apocalypse. It might not have that effect if it were heard more often — its power resides in the fact that Wagner holds it back.
In Walküre, the melody always seems to have the effect of an abrupt illumination, of light flooding in. When a singer as secure as the young Deborah Voigt delivers it, you are lifted out of your seat. The excerpt I've chosen above is from a legendary Met performance on Dec. 6, 1941, with Astrid Varnay as Sieglinde and Erich Leinsdorf conducting. The almighty dramatic soprano was then only twenty-three, and, incredibly, she was making her first appearance on any stage, substituting on one day's notice for Lotte Lehmann. (As Varnay related in her fabulous memoir Fifty-five Years in Five Acts, the following day her brother went out in search of reviews, and came back with news of the attack on Pearl Harbor.) The sense of personal and artistic triumph in the voice is palpable. In several senses, you hear the future.