Seven Faces of Kundry
ore than any other work of Richard Wagner, his Parsifal is 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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