Sleeping and Waking in Wagner's Operas
Kundry: Schlafen - schlafen - ich muss. (Parsifal act one)
The cycle of sleep and wakefulness is an everyday human experience; but in Parsifal the need for sleep and the need to awaken out of sleep (into consciousness) bears a special significance. The same could be said of an earlier work by the same composer; his Siegfried, in which the central characters of Siegfried and Brünnhilde, as individuals, develop and awaken. In Parsifal, it is the eponymous hero and his would-be seducer, Kundry, who undergo personality changes. In Parsifal's case those changes are linear while for Kundry the changes are cyclical.
he music-drama Siegfried, which is the third part of Wagner's Ring cycle, is a drama about sleep and waking. At the beginning of this drama, it is the dragon Fafnir who sleeps, coiled around the Nibelung hoard. It is the young hero Siegfried, we discover, who is to awaken the dragon, and in the process Siegfried takes important steps in his own development as an individual, which can be likened to an awakening. In the second act of the drama, we see the dwarf Alberich awaken from sleep by the dragon's lair; soon dark Alberich is joined by the god Wotan, and together they waken the dragon, to warn him of the approach of young Siegfried. Fafnir turns over and goes back to sleep, only to receive a rude awakening from the hero. After he has killed the dragon, Siegfried tastes the blood, and as a result he gains the ability to understand the meaning of bird song. A little bird leads him to the Valkyrie rock, where he awakens the sleeping Brünnhilde. At first he confuses her with his mother (as Parsifal at first will interpret Kundry) but the "mother" becomes his lover. Although she is awake in a literal sense, Brünnhilde does not seem to have woken up to an awareness of her new situation as a mortal woman; it is only after Siegfried calls on her to wake up, that Brünnhilde awakens to her new life.
he mother is a symbol of the unconscious, Tristan's
he sleeping valkyrie was not invented by Wagner, of course. She is recognisably the fairytale figure of Sleeping Beauty (Dornröschen); like many other fairytales, as the Grimm brothers discovered, her story could be traced back to an early Germanic original, surviving in the form of Old Norse poems and sagas. The sleeping beauty was originally (in Sigrdrífomál in the Poetic Edda) called Sigrdrifr. This character was merged with Brynhild, not by Wagner, but (most likely) by the author of the Volsungasaga, an important source used by Wagner in his Ring. (Confusingly, there is another Eddic poem, Helreið Brynhildar, in which the once sleeping valkyrie is called Brynhild, but this poem was probably composed after Volsungasaga). Brynhild was put to sleep with a thorn and woken by Sigurd removing her armour; Wagner's Brünnhilde (whose name is the Germanised form of Brynhild) is both put to sleep with a kiss (from Wotan) and woken with a kiss (from Siegfried).
the end of the final opera in the cycle, Wagner's Brünnhilde undergoes a further change. She reaches a level of awareness in which she is able to understand all that has happened, perhaps even to understand the nature of the world, and cheerfully to ascend the funeral pyre with the dead Siegfried, so that the ring may be reclaimed from her ashes by the waters of the Rhine.
Right: Kundry asleep, from H.J. Syberberg's film. © Artificial Eye.
agner returned to the theme of sleep and waking when he drafted Parsifal. He
wrote that Kundry
[Brihadâranyaka Upanishad, IV.3, verses 18-20.
he events of Parsifal are supposedly set in Arthurian times, so if Kundry
witnessed the suffering of Jesus, then she must be over five hundred years old. Not surprisingly, she is tired. She gasps out,
either in the 1865 Prose Draft nor in the 1877 libretto does Wagner explain how long or how often Kundry sleeps. It might be that, like
Brünnhilde, she sometimes sleeps for years; it is possible that she has been sleeping for several years of Parsifal's wandering,
until she awakes shortly before he arrives at Monsalvat. Finding her, Gurnemanz reveals that he has found her like this before. In the first act he described how
Titurel, long ago, had
Right: the Parsifal Cross, based on the ideas of Wieland Wagner. Parsifal's progress is shown by the vertical spear, which pierces the plane of Kundry's cycle of rebirth at the point of the kiss.
n contrast to Kundry's cyclical existence, during the course of Wagner's drama,
Parsifal undergoes a linear development. As in a poem that contributed to Richard Wagner's
initial inspiration, Wolfram's epic poem Parzival, the foolish boy becomes a
hero, and in both cases the path taken by the future hero is an unconventional one; he follows paths of error and suffering;
ieland Wagner, the composer's grandson and stage director, once described Kundry as frozen in time, moving in a spatial dimension back and forth between two domains on either side of the mountains; while Parsifal moves and develops in a temporal dimension; these dimensions meet in the kiss. Like the sleeping valkyrie, Parsifal is awakened with a kiss; in the third act, he takes away Kundry's sins (when considered from a Christian viewpoint) or transfers merit to her (when considered from a Buddhist viewpoint) when he returns the kiss.
rom a Buddhist perspective, that intense reaction which Kundry's kiss had elicited from Parsifal, is none other than a flash of enlightenment, a small awakening, the first of many which must be experienced on the path to becoming a spiritual teacher, an advanced Bodhisattva. This experience pushed Parsifal's spiritual realisations several notches up, despite the fact that kisses are conventionally regarded as physical indulgences of the sensually-inclined and the worldly¹. Parsifal's progress is still far from complete at the end of the second act, as he shows by his failure to understand Kundry's situation, which reveals that he has not yet reached enlightenment.
o discussion of sleep in Wagner's dramas would be complete without considering his interest in dreams. That
dreams were important to him is revealed by the fact that many of his dreams were recorded by Cosima in her diaries. Already in his romantic opera
Lohengrin Wagner showed us a young woman who withdrew into a world of dreams, in which she saw the knight who would be her champion in the real world.
In the Ring he showed us an earth-goddess who sleeps and dreams:
[Brihadâranyaka Upanishad, IV.3, verse 32.
t was in sleep, or in a state between sleep and waking, that Wagner received some of his own inspiration. At least if we take seriously his story of the inspiration for the prelude to Das Rheingold, half- awake on a couch in a hotel at La Spezia and suffering from the after-effects of overindulgence in Italian ice-cream. So in Die Meistersinger we are not surprised when Walther reveals the inspiration that had come to him asleep, which he expresses in his Morning Dream- Song2.
undry's sleep is unique however. It is a metaphor within the metaphor that is Kundry. As noted above, Schopenhauer held the view that sleep is in essence and in his metaphysical view, not much different from death:
Footnote 1: Although it is unlikely that Wagner knew about it, there is a precedent for Kundry's kiss in one of the Mahāyāna Buddhist scriptures. It can be found in the Gandavyuha Sutra, the last part of the compilation known as the Avatamsaka Sutra, which became known in China as the Flower Garland Sutra. The Gandavyuha Sutra describes the progress of its hero, Sudhana, on the path to salvation. On that path he meets more than fifty spiritual teachers, each of whom helps him to find the path. Remarkably, one of these spiritual teachers is Vasumitra, who is both a prostitute and an advanced Bodhisattva. For some beings in need of salvation, the best way to receive the teachings of the Buddha, according to Vasumitra, is in the embrace of a prostitute. Vasumitra's kiss brings a small awakening and so she can be seen as a precedent for Kundry.
Footnote 2: Schopenhauer distinguished between two kinds of sleep: deep sleep (either dreaming or non-dreaming), and the "morning dream", which represents a translation of the deep dream into the terms of the waking world and hence, a falsification. In Die Meistersinger, Wagner treats the morning dream in terms of its value for artistic creativity, as he had himself experienced it. In Tristan und Isolde the goal of dreaming is denial of the world -- eternal night and forgetfulness -- not awakening to the world of day.
Footnote 3: This is Schopenhauer's doctrine of reincarnation or metempsychosis. It appears that only late in life did the philosopher realise that reincarnation was an inevitable consequence of some aspects of his philosophy but he never fully developed his doctrine, which as it stands is based on Greek philosophy. He was interested in Hindu and Buddhist ideas of rebirth but even in the third edition of his WWR there is no clear separation between the respectively Hindu and Buddhist concepts. Between the second and third editions he had read books and articles about eastern religions (and provided a reading list on this subject in his Über den Willen in der Natur), which is reflected in passages in the third edition of WWR.