Herauf! Herauf! Zu mir!
Dein Meister ruft dich, Namenlose,
Herodias warst du, und was noch?
Gundryggia dort, Kundry hier!
Hieher! Hieher denn, Kundry!
Dein Meister ruft; herauf!
Arise! Arise! To me!
Your master calls you, nameless one,
First she-devil! Rose of Hades!
Herodias were you, and what else?
Gundryggia then, Kundry here!
Come here! Come here now, Kundry!
Your master calls: arise!
[Parsifal, Act 2]
An introduction to Richard Wagner's Kundry
In Wagner's last music-drama Parsifal, we encounter a mysterious creature called Kundry. In the domain of
the Grail, this Kundry appears as a wild woman, an unkempt, shabby and repulsive crone. On
the other side of the mountains, however, in the magic garden of the sorcerer Klingsor,
she appears as a beautiful maiden. In this article, I shall try to identify the many elements that were combined to create the most complex character in all of
Wagner's dramatic works. Further articles will explore some of these elements in detail.
Wagner, who liked old books and spent much of his time reading them, first met the errant knight Perceval in the epic poem Parzival by the Minnesinger,
Wolfram von Eschenbach. Years later Wagner said that he had been disappointed by Parzival although he had been struck by
wild appearance of Condrie. It is clear that he was intrigued by these characters and by the story of the mysterious Grail. He looked
for other medieval texts on the same subject but (in the 1850's) found little except a strange story, in modern French, translated from Breton, about the Welsh
hero Peredur. Years later he was able to read all of the important Grail Romances in a seven-volume collection of them,
translated into modern French by Ch. Potvin. In the intervening years, his reading strayed like Parsifal far and wide, and Wagner
found other female characters whom he related to his composite figure Kundry. Since Wagner's wandering in literature began with the Grail Romances, I
shall start my study of Kundry by considering a few of the female archetypes found in those stories.
Above: Evelyn Herlitzius as Kundry in the recent NY Met production of 'Parsifal'. At the end of Act II, Kundry curses Parsifal to wander.
agner's Kundry can be related to several
female characters who appear in his Percevalian sources, that is, medieval Romances about Perceval and Gawain. In the Romances these
female characters disturb the knights and distract them from their knightly business: variously asking them for help, attempting to seduce them or simply giving
them a proper telling off. It is important to remember that, in addition to these ladies, Wagner later added into his mix elements from completely different
literary and mythical traditions; notably, the exotic Herodias. The Percevalian sources included, as I have
described in a separate article, Wolfram's Parzival, Chrétien's Perceval and the anonymous Welsh/Breton Peredur. In addition, Wagner, in the late 1860's, had
Ch. Potvin's modern translation of Perlesvaus, or The High History of The Holy Grail. Although it has not been established that he knew this book before writing the Prose Draft of
Right: A dark-skinned Condrie abuses Parzival in this painting from Ludwig
's castle of Neuschwanstein.
ne of the archetypes of this tradition that caught Wagner's imagination was that of the Loathly Damsel. This creature appears at critical points in all four of these poems. Generally she brings news (in German, "news" or
"information" is Kunde, whence Kundry), explains what has happened, and hints at what might happen later.
Wolfram presents Condrie la sorziere as the High Messenger of the Grail. In Perlesvaus, perhaps taking a hint from an unimportant line in Chrétien's poem, she becomes the Bald
Damsel, who is also lady Fortune. In Wolfram it is Sigune who becomes bald.
ne element, found only in the Welsh/Breton Peredur and in the allegorical
Perlesvaus, seems to have been particularly important for Wagner: the repulsive,
filthy Loathly Damsel is also the beautiful Grail Bearer who is seen at the Grail
Castle. This dual nature of the character as she appears in these two poems, is also found in other medieval literature, notably in Chaucer's Wife of
Bath's Tale. Wagner kept this element of duality; although in his version, it is Condrie la sorziere who is seen at the Grail
Castle, and her beautiful transformation is controlled by Klingsor. Here Klingsor seems to be based on Wolfram's Clinschor who has cast a spell
over the proud and beautiful Orgeluse.
olfram's account of the first visit of the sheltered youth to
the Grail Castle was based upon an earlier version of this incident in the poem by Chrétien (summary).
Left: The Grail bearer as portrayed by Arthur Rackham.
any things are unclear in Chrétien's account, not least the
phenomena seen by Perceval at the Grail Castle, including the beautiful maiden who bears
the Grail. The poet died leaving his poem for others to complete, which they did in various ways (the so-called Continuations). As
in the modern detective story, we can see that Chrétien was building up to an ending in which these mysteries
would be explained both to the young hero and to the reader (as they are explained by the hermit in Wolfram's completion of the
hrétien does not explicitly state that the Grail was the source
of the food that was served to Perceval and the others present in the hall; although the passage has often been
read that way, and later authors developed the horn of plenty aspect of the Grail. Perhaps the original of this Grail was a Celtic vessel that provided limitless food, such as that from which, in an Irish tale, the daughter of Lugh
or is it clear whether the radiance that appears when the Grail enters emanates from the
cup itself or from the girl who bears it. It is possible that the original Grail Bearer was a goddess and
it might be that, through misreading of this passage, the divinity had been transferred from the girl to the vessel itself. The remaining question is: which
Right: Waltraud Meier as Kundry, Bayreuth 1989.
oomis believed that he had found the origin of the Loathly
Damsel in Celtic tales 1. He pointed out similarities between her description as found in the Welsh text
of Peredur and Irish adventures, suggesting that the Loathly Damsel is one aspect of the
Sovereignty of Ireland, who may be identified with the goddess Eriu. Her role in the myth of Irish kingship is to personify the land; her metamorphosis
from hag to beautiful maiden represented the change from winter to spring, when vegetation appears out of the dead land. In order to win her, the aspiring king
must embrace her winter aspect, and marry her in the spring to ensure the fertility of the land. This is one version of the myth of the Waste
Land. It is in her winter aspect that Eriu appears in the story of Niall, and it is in her spring aspect that she appears in the tale
of Conn, in which she offers the hero drink from a golden cup.
he story of Perceval is the story of Conn reversed: Perceval fails the test. Instead of the Loathly
Damsel becoming a beautiful goddess, the beautiful girl becomes an ugly creature who pours scorn on the Quester for his failure. It is possible to see traces
of this myth in Wagner's Parsifal: Kundry's kiss; the arrival of the hero at the edge of the forest as winter changes to
spring; Kundry's assistance in the anointing of Parsifal as king.
agner's dramatic genius can be seen in his ability to select from sources and to make new connections between their elements. Drawing on diverse sources, Wagner made some radical changes to Wolfram's story, simplifying the plot and reducing many simple characters to a few complex ones.
agner adopted the Christianised version of the Grail, rather than the mysterious stone described in Wolfram's account. By 1865 he had discarded the Question entirely; after considering several alternatives, he made the recovery of the spear the focus of the story,
removed Gawain and his quest, and later changed some of the names (although the names in the Prose Draft are still those taken from Wolfram). Wagner merged two of Wolfram's characters to
make a composite called Gurnemanz, and merged at least three of the female characters into a composite called
Kundry. He linked together the Grail, the spear and the wild woman:
when Titurel arrived in the mountains with the holy relics, he found Kundry:
Der fand, als er die Burg dort baute, sie schlafend hier im Waldgestrüpp, erstarrt, leblos, wie tot.
ike the young Parsifal, the wild woman has many names. The many
elements in Wagner's Kundry included another archetype found in literature from the Middle Ages onwards: the Wandering Jew. In Wagner's poem, Kundry becomes a reincarnation of
Herodias who, because she had laughed at the Saviour's suffering 2, was cursed to
wander through the world until His return. She is not only cursed to wander, but also always to tell the truth; and she cannot weep,
only laugh her accursed laugh. Another Herodias can be found in Heine's poem Atta Troll; this former princess of Judea does not
wander the world, but rides, laughing, with the Wild Hunt across the sky. She appears as a
cruel rose in Mallarmé's Les fleurs (1864):
L'hyacinthe, le myrte à l'adorable éclair
Et, pareille à la chair de la femme, la rose
Cruelle, Hérodiade en fleur du jardin clair,
Celle qu'un sang farouche et et radieux arrose!
Left: Olive Fremstad as Kundry
n her Cambridge Handbook, Lucy Beckett entirely misses the point of the Herodias reference, but makes an interesting observation about the reference to Mary
Magdalen. Beckett reminds us that in 1848 Wagner 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.
Although Wagner repeatedly denied that Parsifal was a Christ- figure (
I never gave the Saviour a thought, he
said), this image had stayed with him and was incorporated by him into the Good Friday scene.
n Die Sieger, an opera that Wagner never completed, a chaste young man called Ananda receives into the religious community a beautiful girl called Prakriti, who has
passionately loved him; but Shakyamuni, the future Buddha persuades him to renounce her. The Buddha
reveals that in an earlier incarnation, Prakriti had rejected, with mocking laughter, the love of a young man.
Prakriti is a parallel to Mary Magdalen in the sense that both are outcasts. By
absorbing these two outcast women, in their different ways excluded and despised by patriarchal societies, who by their associations with the Buddha and Christ
respectively introduce further religious iconography to Wagner's drama, Kundry gained a further dimension.
Left: Cartoon by M. Kringle, in Klier
Below: Waltraud Meier as Kundry in each of the 3 acts of Parsifal
n a program note for the Bayreuth Festival, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss
wrote (From Chrétien de Troyes to Richard Wagner, in The View From Afar):
We may ask ... whether Wagner, by making Kundry a
double creature, was not unconsciously going back to a very ancient tradition, of which only a vestige survives in Wolfram.
Celtic literature sometimes describes an old, repulsive hag who offers herself to the hero and then, when he accepts her, turns
into a radiant beauty - an image, we are told, of the sovereignty that a pretender to the throne must win. Furthermore, in order to construct the character
of Kundry, Wagner blended into one, four heroines of Chrétien and Wolfram: the 'hideous damsel' already mentioned; the Maiden-who-never-laughs, except to tell Perceval of his promised destiny [Wolfram's Cunneware]; the cousin [Wolfram's Sigune] who tells him that his mother is dead and who, in Wolfram, is the first to call him by his name; and the
'wicked maiden' ... Orgeluse. According to Wolfram [she is] indirectly
responsible for the treacherous blow that strikes Anfortas down.
Left: Winkelmann as Parsifal and Materna as Kundry, Bayreuth 1882. ©Richard- Wagner- Gedenkstätte.
s if the vocal challenges of this Zwischenfach role were not enough, great histrionics are required from
the singer-actress, who must nevertheless take care not to be too melodramatic in her interpretation. Vocally the part has been successfully sung by both sopranos
and mezzo-sopranos. In 1882 it was created by Amelia Materna, who had sung Brünnhilde in the first complete staging of the Ring six years earlier. Since
then, noted interpreters have included Rosa Sucher, Anna von Mildenburg, Olive Fremstad, Ellen Gulbrandson, Marie Wittich (the first Salome), Marie Brema, Eva von der Osten (the first Octavian), Marta Fuchs, Martha Mödl, Astrid Varnay, Régine Crespin, Christa Ludwig, Amy
Shuard, Ludmila Dvoráková, Gwyneth Jones, Janis Martin, Rita Gorr, Eva Randová, Leonie Rysanek, Anne Evans and Waltraud Meier.
Here it should be noted that Wagner's main source of Celtic legends was a Breton collection that included the Peredur
. His Bayreuth library contains some volumes of Erin
, a collection of Irish folktales and legends in German translation.
In the 1865 Prose Draft
Wagner writes of an ancient curse
without stating why Kundry had been cursed.
Only in the second Prose Draft of 1877, after Wagner had been reading books about early Christianity, did he introduce the idea that Kundry had mocked Jesus and
that he had cursed her; so that she now seeks Christ from world to world,
endlos durch das Dasein quält