Introductory remark:

The following article is essentially an abstract of my M.A. thesis, "Kundrys afspejlinger" (Kundry's reflections). As such, it consists almost entirely of conclusions; arguments, musical examples, quotations, footnotes, etc., have been omitted for the sake of brevity.

A slightly different version of the article is published in the Danish musicological journal "Kvinder i musik" (Women in Music), No. 45-46, March 2000.

A Wonderfully World-Demoniac Woman

Wagner's Kundry and her Reflections in Salome and Lulu

By Nila Parly


The enigmatic Kundry from Wagner's "Parsifal" (1882) is one of the most fascinating female characters in the history of opera; her personality is based on a combination of very different - male and female - characters from Wagner's source text, Wolfram von Eschenbach's romance "Parzifal". In addition to this, already complicated, mixture of personalities, Kundry's character bears the strong imprint of Wagner's own ambivalent feelings towards women and femaleness in general: Kundry is - like Wagner - a loner, a person outside society, and her transgressive, merciless ferocity personifies both that collision of extremes which is the very basis of Wagner's artistic creativity, and the dangerous insubordination which threatens his personal position from without, through the emancipation of women in society. Wagner's own expression, "a wonderfully world-demoniac woman" ("ein wunderbar weltdämonisches Weib", in: "Richard Wagner an Mathilde Wesendonck. Tagebuchblätter und Briefe 1853-1871", Berlin 1904, Brief 61 + 106 a), is quite apt for this ambiguous creature, who, in spite of her incredible human insight, is unable to control her urges and therefore has to move in an almost insane "other world" of genius, defined by the tremendous forces which lie beyond the borderlands of the extremes.

Kundry's reflections

Kundry's highly original personality has influenced later female portraits well into the twentieth century. Her character has achieved the status of a new "archetype", an ambiguous femme fatale, whose shadow reaches beyond the genre of opera and into other forms of art, as literature and painting. But the most evident reflections of Kundry's split personality are still to be found in opera, especially in Richard Strauss' "Salome" (1905) and Alban Berg's "Lulu" (1937). The typological similarities between these three female protagonists have been observed long ago, but a proper musicological comparison was still lacking when I wrote my M.A. thesis (December 1998, Department of Musicology, University of Copenhagen). The aim of my thesis, the conclusions of which are abstracted in this article, was to explore not only the textual, but also the musical connections between them.

Salome and Lulu are both, like Kundry, at once whore and Madonna, victim and executioner, redeemer and the one to be redeemed. All of them are mythical primordial women, sensual, carnal, demoniacal, immanent, and malicious natures, condemned to live in a vicious circle of fruitless repetitions and rebirths, and in all three operas, their identity is defined by the men around them. The women appear as individuals only once in each opera: Kundry emerges from the crowd of flower maidens as an active individual in her encounter with Parsifal in the second act, Salome blooms as an individual in her concluding soliloquy, when she is kissing Jochanaan's severed head, and Lulu's individuality unfolds in her Lied to Dr. Schön. The attempts of the women to assert their characters become the turning points of the operas; their power has been constantly rising until this moment, but this ultimate rebellion against the men leads, in all three operas, to damnation, personal dissolution and sudden death.

The most important means of evoking informative associations in a musical drama (and all three works are musical dramas) are poetic and musical leitmotifs and symbols. But also such elements as timbre, harmony, tones and keys, intervals, rhythm etc., have a great semantic and associational value, in my opinion, within the setting of each work, but certainly also outside of it, as threads of associations between the works. Strauss, for instance, uses the keys of D major/minor and A flat major just as Wagner does, when God or religiosity are implied. And both Strauss and Berg use the tritone interval with the same meaning as Wagner ascribed to it, that is, as a musical "sign" of the wistful quality of divine genius/erotic madness. Berg even took over the transcendent meaning, which Wagner applied to the interval of the fifth (only in Berg, it is the woman - the Countess Geschwitz - who is the bearer of this transcendent interval, not the man).

All three composers assign the string instruments to the female, and besides, they exploit the visual potential of notation as an expression of the philosophical antagonisms in their musical dramas. Wagner demonstrates the overall, extreme contrast between the acts in placing the instruments at the very top or the very bottom of the score page, Strauss uses sharp keys as opposed to flat keys (or keys without signatures), while Berg shows the antagonisms in his work through the contrast of black and white keys on the piano.

The sick society

In all three operas, the female protagonist is described as morbid, and the morbidness of her mind is linked to female sexuality. However, the sexual origin of the morbidness in question is altered in the two latter operas. In Wagner, the sexual woman was identical to contagious morbidness, in Strauss the morbidness is expanded to comprehend both woman and the society surrounding her, and in Berg, finally, the outset is turned around 180 degrees, so that morbidness emanates from society, which projects it onto Lulu. This development may be explained historically, of course. Wagner lived in a society where the growing emancipation of women was beginning to pose a threat to patriarchy, and where strong women were considered dangerous and unpredictable; their unpredictability, on the other hand, might serve as a creative launching of the chaotic in the arts. The actively challenging woman materialized as a split human archetype, in which Wagner and the male artists after him could see themselves mirrored.

Strauss and the author of the Salome drama, Oscar Wilde, however, lived in a time when Wagner's unhappy "primordial woman" had long ago been turned into a decadent vampire, exhibited in the process of society's oppression of women. The provocative effect of the opera "Salome" accordingly stemmed from the fact that Wilde/Strauss did not exhibit Salome; on the contrary, they identified with her, making her the equivalent of the feminine side of themselves. Salome became the indisputable main character of the show, and like Kundry's sensual twin sister, Isolde, she got the title role and the only cathartic piece in the opera: the concluding "Liebestod".

But Wilde and Strauss did not go all the way, for in the last moment they let Herod give the order to have Salome killed - an order which is not rooted in the biblical narrative, on which the drama is based (incidentally, the opera ends in the "male" key of C major/minor, the key of Jochanaan). The creators of the Salome character provided themselves with a comfortable alibi by this ending, because the execution established a safe distance to the female sexual powers which otherwise had been the fulcrum of the whole spectacle. But Herod's revenge nonetheless enters so late and so suddenly that it is never really convincing. Salome's concluding soliloquy is too powerfully present in the memory of the spectators, and her annihilation by the tetrarch is left standing as a hollow postulate.

"Lulu" is - unlike "Salome" - a thoroughly moral drama from the very beginning. Berg (and the dramatist, Frank Wedekind) thought, like many of the other artists of the period, that the anti-social spirit predominant at the beginning of the century was to blame for the ravages of the First World War. It was the self-complacency and egoism of patriarchal society (reflected in the l'art pour l'art tendency) that had led to this meaningless frenzy of war, in which society's weakest - including the women - became the innocent victims.

Berg wanted to show to the conservative theatre audience the "female image", which the spectators themselves had created and exploited for the purpose of restraining women sexually and socially; thus, he relates dialectically to Wagner's female character by conjuring up the diabolical "rose of hell" as she really is: as an image created by men. (What is usually called Lulu's theme should, therefore, be renamed "Lulu's image"; because the theme proper of Lulu is the naked dodecaphonic series on which the entire opera is based. It appears melodically in the singing voice only once, when Lulu in the second act objects to the femme fatale label and renounces the role of executioner.) Lulu is still both executioner and victim, but the emphasis is, in Berg, shifted towards woman as the innocent victim.

Berg was not innovative because he sided with woman; his innovational achievement consisted in using the femme fatale character, which had for so long been linked to society's repression of women, in a positive way - as a vindication of woman - and he even let his alter ego, the composer Alwa, be redeemed with her through a female Saviour, the Countess Geschwitz, in the latter's "Liebestod" at the end of the work.

The psychology of voice

What constitutes opera, is singing. To avoid singing, consistently, in an opera is therefore tantamount to challenging the very foundations of the reality you are part of, putting yourself in opposition to the "opera society", and that is exactly what Kundry, Salome, and Lulu are doing. Their musical language is either unpredictably desultory, chromatically floating, or stubbornly locked in uniform repetitions, and their abrupt, textually paradoxical exclamations form a harsh contrast to the meaningful, epic language of the men.

As we move forward in time, a greater distance occurs between the male and the female types of voice, since the heavy male heroic voices, which Wagner invented, are retained in the two latter operas, whereas the heavy female type of voice is lifted and lightened. Since dark voices are traditionally thought of as evil or tragic, and light voices as good and chaste, the adjustment of the female characters to a lighter and airier ideal of timbre leads to a more innocuous and vulnerable expression, so that the sonorous emphasis is also shifted from woman as predominantly executioner to woman as predominantly victim, and the fact that Salome and Lulu are made coloratura sopranos further underscores this shift. The Countess in "Lulu" is the only one to keep Kundry's dark, dramatic mezzo, but she is appointed to be the tragic character of the drama, having taken over the male role as the compassionate and transcendent human being.

From "female" to "female image"

Kundry is and remains the strongest and most dangerous of the three female characters, and she clearly possesses the greatest mythical scope. No surprise then, that she is the one who is surrounded by the most massive male major/minor tonal frame, consisting of the entire first and third acts; Kundry and her music, hostile to major/minor tonality, are only allowed to dominate the second act, but this alone is sufficient to shake the tonal system to its foundations. Salome's provocative music was not obliterated by the patriarchal system until the last page of the score, and the men in Berg's opera never succeeded in obliterating Lulu on the musical level; the opera ends in the "love trope" of the Countess, the five tones of which, according to my own analysis in my thesis, form a highly significant conflation of the tonal bases of Alwa and Lulu.

Salome embodies an intermediary stage between Kundry and Lulu. The men around her are, without exception, narcissists mirroring themselves in her chaste beauty, but she herself is the greatest narcissist of the drama, because she is, even in her own eyes, indistinguishable from her own perfect moon-like image. In her role as her own mirror image, Salome has lost Kundry's conscious strength of will, thus becoming a more harmless, unpersonal object.

In Berg, the reification of woman is made even more obvious; Kundry's equivocal traits are now divided between two different female characters; one - Lulu - represents the passive child of nature, the other - the Countess - the active wisdom. Lulu is no longer a human being, as Kundry was, with all the paradoxical actions and inner conflicts that humanness entails, Lulu is just a beautiful thing, and her decay and her waning dangerousness are symbolized by her full lips growing thin. Her lips, and the kisses they invite, are her only raison d'être, because Lulu is the personification of sensual love, and on the day her beauty is no longer, she herself will also cease to exist.

In transforming the Kundry character into images, the latter operas allow the sexes a more equal standing, emphasizing the fact that the femme fatale is an aesthetic and awe-inspiring sensual ideal created by the male fantasy. Such a representation brings the relationship between the sexes up for debate, but the imaging is undoubtedly disadvantageous to the character itself, because the female protagonist has been immobilized on her way from human being to female image and has lost a considerable part of her profound wisdom and dangerous dramatic impact.

The innovative music of the female characters

Kundry has, as I see it, not two leitmotifs, but one single dual motif, based on a combination of the Tristan chord and the diminished seventh chord. This motif is characterized by speed and a strong rhythmic impetus (in dotted quavers), but it is confined by D, the men's tone. The motif is melodically wrought around a concealed skeleton of minor thirds; it starts on a D and ascends towards an upper D, from which it descends again towards the D which formed its outset. The two parts of the leitmotif may be interpreted as cause and effect: Carnal Kundry challenges, with her mocking laughter, the very foundation of patriarchal society, Christ (symbolized by the high D) and is, in retaliation, thrown back from the climax of the motif (the high D, with an underlying Tristan chord) to her point of departure. And now, being doomed, she can only repeat the closed circuit of minor thirds in the diminished seventh chord, D, F, A flat, B, D, F, A flat, B, and so on, up and down ad infinitum.

Kundry's music is a worthier opponent to tonality than the sporadically dissonant, chromatic coloratura style which was the hallmark of earlier transgressive female characters in opera. This is due to the fact that Kundry's leitmotif interferes with the universe of hierarchic tonality even when she is not present on the stage, because of Wagner's leitmotif technique, and her dual motif with its Tristan chord and its diminished seventh seeks nothing but itself and accentuates no particular part of itself; her music is, in other words, essentially atonal. Thus, the character of Kundry constitutes an obvious starting point for composers like Strauss and Berg, who in their musical drama strive to overcome the hierarchy of tonality.

The Tristan chord and the diminished seventh are also used as essential elements in the musical description of the women in Strauss and Berg. The leitmotifs of the women are based on an inner tension created by a tritone in the middle of the motifs. The sense of confinement, which I mentioned in connection with Kundry's motif, is also detectable in both Salome's and Lulu's motifs; Lulu's series, for instance, is confined within the tones of the men, C/C sharp.

Berg moreover operates with an unusually pithy motif in "Lulu", used with the same meaning as Wagner used the Tristan chord; the motif expresses wistful love and moves upwards in a ladder of alternating fourths and tritone intervals, which is in principle endless. Exactly these two intervals are essential elements in the use of the Tristan chord, as it was first introduced in the "Tristan and Isolde" ouverture.

The women are mythological archetypes, their past thus equals their future, and they are their own experience, their own fate. They are not just female characters, they are the work of art itself, because the entire musical drama, in which they take part, functions like a magnified version of the leitmotif of the female protagonist. The net of keys in these works has the motif tones of the woman as its template, and both the tripartite action-based arched form of the opera and its bipartite psychological build-up of suspense around a middle axis are shaped according to the personal leitmotif of the woman. Female motif and opera is the selfsame thing.

In Wagner's musical drama, Kundry achieved what she wanted most of all, to die liberated from the eternal rebirths of doom; but posterity has shown her no mercy. She is too interesting, too enigmatic and complex, too strong, too wise, too expressive - we need her provocative, hierarchy-defying music and her indomitable, chaotic mind. A personality of her magnitude cannot die, because she is, with a typical Wagnerian phrase, "a woman of the future"; she is so in terms of text and in my opinion even more so in terms of music.