Seven Faces of Wagner's Kundry: A Composite Figure
ore than any other work of Richard Wagner, his Parsifal is
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.
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,
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
Right: Kirsten Flagstad as Kundry. Met Opera NY 1940.
lesser genius than Richard Wagner, starting from Wolfram's epic poem Parzival, might have kept from that poem three of its 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.