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Seven Faces of Kundry

More than any other work of Richard Wagner, his Parsifal is a a fine mélange, as the composer described one passage he had just composed for the first act. All was grist to his mill: scenery that he had seen in Paris, costumes worn by a chorus in London, characters from medieval and modern literature, poetry and prose, tales from Europe and India. The many ingredients were stirred together and simmered for twenty years before the result could be written down as the libretto of 1877. The range and variety of these ingredients can be revealed by examining the composite personality of one of the central characters, Kundry. In addition to a number of minor ones, it is possible to discern seven major components in Wagner's Kundry. The following notes are a summary of these components.

(1) The Beautiful Maiden is Kundry transformed by the power of Klingsor, appearing after his magic maidens have failed to seduce the future hero. The odd thing about this seduction scene is that it is difficult to identify anything similar in Wagner's sources, thus it has naturally been assumed that Wagner invented this scene out of whole cloth. However, a possible inspiration for the scene is one of the books that Wagner left behind him in Dresden in 1849: a book by Rudolf von Ems, published in Leipzig five years earlier, which contains the story of the saints Barlaam and Josaphat. Details in the story are curiously similar to details of the second act of Parsifal. More about St. Josaphat and the Beautiful Maiden.

(2) Condrie or Cundrie is of all characters in Wolfram's Parzival, the most likely to have inspired Wagner in creating Kundry. Wagner was scornful of Wolfram's poem, but a few things stuck in my mind - the Good Friday, the wild appearance of Condrie. Beyond the similarity of name, however, they have little in common whether of appearance, behaviour or incident. Kundry owes more to two other characters in Wolfram's poem: Orgeluse and Sigune. Condrie is the loathly damsel, a character with her own literary tradition, which has been traced back to her origin as the Sovereignty of the land. The loathly damsel has a double character: she can appear either in her winter aspect as a repulsive hag, or in her spring aspect as a beautiful maiden. The latter has been identified with the radiant maiden who bears the Holy Grail. More about Condrie and the Loathly Damsel.

(3) Herodias is one of the names used by Klingsor in his invocation of Kundry at the start of the second act of Parsifal. Like the young Parsifal, the wild woman has had many names. While the other names might be unimportant, the name Herodias looks like it might be significant; it might even be Kundry's original name. As she reveals in the final part of the second act, Kundry has been cursed to wander ever since she laughed at the suffering of Jesus. Whilst it is never stated that Kundry, perhaps in the first of many lives, was of Jewish race, this is often inferred. Wagner's use of the name Herodias seems to have been inspired by two literary sources. One of them is Heine's poem Atta Troll, in which the poet tells of his love for the princess of Judea, Herodias, who is dead and buried at Jerusalem. She now joins the Wild Hunt, and with them, like Kundry in act one of Parsifal, laughing, rides across the sky. Jede Nacht, an deiner Seite, Reit ich mit dem wilden Heere, Und wir kosen und wir lachen Über meine tollen Reden. The other source was Sue's novel, published in serial form, Le juif errant. The Wandering Jew of the title, Ahasuerus, is accompanied by Herodias, who like him is unable to find rest. More about Herodias.

(4) Mary Magdalene is suggested by the actions of the penitent Kundry in the third act of Wagner's drama. In late 1848 he had sketched a scenario for a play called Jesus of Nazareth, which includes a scene in which the penitent Magdalen kneels in repentance before Jesus on the shore of Lake Gennesareth; later in the play she was to anoint his head and wash his feet, just as Kundry does toward Parsifal in the opera. There is an interesting parallel between the Magdalen, who desires to serve Jesus and the apostles, and Prakriti, who wants to join the community of Shakyamuni, the future Buddha. This desire to serve is also a characteristic of the penitent Kundry; in fact her only words in the third act are dienen -- dienen. More about Mary Magdalene.

(5) Orgeluse or the haughty lady of Logres is one of Wolfram's characters who would seem to be indispensable to Wagner's version of the story. She has been put under a spell by the sorcerer Clinschor. Wolfram's Anfortas set out to win the heart of Orgeluse, and in her service was wounded. In Wagner's account, Amfortas is enamoured of the beautiful Kundry, and in her embrace he is both deprived of and wounded by the spear in his charge, now wielded by the sorcerer Klingsor. Thus as Anfortas became Amfortas, Clinschor became Klingsor and Orgeluse became the beautiful Kundry. More about Orgeluse.

(6) Prakriti was to have been the principal female character in Wagner's projected opera based on an Indian text, Die Sieger; although he later changed the name of this character to Savitri, who was the heroine of a different tale entirely. It is possible that one of the reasons for Wagner's failure to make progress with Die Sieger was that many of his ideas for Prakriti had been used in creating Kundry. In particular, the idea that Kundry is in some sense reborn, that she carries a burden of sins committed in a past life, and the motif of mocking laughter that is, in Parsifal, an expression of Schadenfreude, the exact opposite of Mitleid. More about Prakriti.

(7) Sigune is (in Wolfram) Parzival's cousin. In the earlier poem by Chrétien, where she is nameless, the hero-to-be meets his cousin only once; in Wolfram's poem the future hero encounters Sigune several times during the story at what appear to be milestones in his spiritual development. In Chrétien's poem it is the cousin who tells Perceval about the death of his mother. Wolfram's Sigune also speaks to the future hero of his mother, although she does not tell him that his mother is dead; and she reveals his name: You are indeed Parzival. Your name means pierced-through-middle. More about Sigune.

A lesser genius than Richard Wagner, starting from Wolfram's epic poem Parzival, would have kept three distinct, female characters: Orgeluse, Sigune and Condrie. Wagner merged them into a single person; not content with that, he spiced the mixture with characters from completely different literary and religious traditions: a Chandala girl from northeast India, a penitent Magdalen, an Indian princess sent to test the virtue of a Bodhisattva, and Heine's princess of Judea. The result was Kundry.

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