|Wagner's Happy Bears Prowl Again
copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
20 October 2007
The third issue of the new Wagner Journal
has the details) made its way through the postal strike. It
is the first issue I've seen. I wanted to read the editor Barry
Millington's leading article about the rediscovery, not so long
ago, of a lost Wagner opera - or fragment of an opera - with
one of the worst titles in the history of the art. It was called
Männerlist grosser als Frauenlist oder Die glückliche
Bärenfamilie - Man's Cunning is Greater than Women's Cunning
or The Happy Bear Family.
This was an abandoned work from the latter
part of the 1830s, the product of a Wagner who was in some ways
the opposite of what he later became. Instead of the aggressive
mythologiser of German history and culture, we find a young
composer who announced to a friend in 1834 that he would go
to Italy and write an Italian opera, and become suntanned and
strong; then he would turn his gaze to France, where he would
write a French opera. God knows where he would end up then,
he added, "but at least I know who I shall be - no longer
a German philistine".
The feeling that validation could only come
from abroad, that sense of the worthlessness of German culture
- nothing could be more different from the spirit of Hans Sachs
in Die Meister-singer, in those passages that retain their controversial
character today. Or rather, those passages that retain their
controversial character on the German stage today, where even
at Bayreuth it is now felt that the work cannot be put on without
being criticised, root and branch, by the production itself.
In Britain, I think we can afford a more relaxed view of that
Wagner, though, in order to become Wagner,
had to escape a sense of German inferiority. He had to put his
foreign influences behind him. And he was not far from doing
so. Rienzi, rarely revived but an opera that can still hold
the stage (Nicholas Hytner directed it memorably at ENO), belongs
to 1840, the year before The Flying Dutchman, the earliest of
the acknowledged masterpieces. The abortive Happy Bear Family
belongs somewhere in the years 1836-38.
It would have been a singspiel, a comic opera
in which musical numbers alternated with spoken German dialogue,
and was based on a story in the Arabian Nights. A rich jeweller,
who displays the motto of the opera's title in his shop, is
tricked by a veiled woman. First, by revealing parts of her
face, she makes the jeweller fall in love with her. Then she
tricks him into proposing marriage to the monstrously ugly daughter
of a certain baron.
The jeweller pretends to be of noble birth.
The baron agrees to the marriage. The jeweller realises his
mistake and his misfortune. At this point, a dancing bear and
his keeper arrive in town, and the jeweller invites them to
the wedding ceremony. There he reveals that the keeper of the
bear is none other than his long-lost father. Not only that.
It turns out - in a plot twist reminiscent of Auden and Isherwood's
The Dog Beneath the Skin (but neither author could have known
the Wagner opera) - that the dancing bear is in fact the jeweller's
long-lost brother. The marriage is called off and in due course
the jeweller, having proved that men are more cunning than women,
gets to marry the veiled lady.
It is a common problem with a great deal of
defunct drama that things which were once considered uproariously
amusing - like the predicament of a man married to an ugly wife
- no longer have us slapping our sides. You probably had to
hear Scheherazade tell this one, to get the full beauty of it
as a story. What is utterly curious, however, is the way Wagner's
own circumstances have been woven into the plot.
The jeweller's name, Julius Wander, suggests
Wagner's brother Julius, while Julius's long-lost brother who
steps out of the bear-skin is called Richard, like Wagner himself.
But if the two brothers are intended to be recognised as the
Wagner boys, then the story hinges on the question of their
paternity - their noble birth or otherwise. But this would be
a dangerous subject for Wagner to joke about. He himself was
never sure of his paternity. He never knew whether he was the
son of a police actuary called Friedrich Wagner or a painter,
poet and actor called Ludwig Geyer. Friedrich Wagner died from
typhus in 1813, the year of Wagner's birth. But by that stage
Wagner's mother was already Ludwig Geyer's mistress.
There are other references to family circumstances
built into the drama, including a (bad) joke turning on the
possible noble birth of a baker: Wagner's mother was a baker's
daughter. Julius Wagner (born in 1804) was apprenticed as a
goldsmith to the brother of Ludwig Geyer, and led a peripatetic
life. And then there is the question of the ridiculous family
with the monstrously ugly daughter - a family with pretensions
to nobility, descended from a "distinguished ancient race",
a "tribe of all tribes". "Everyone," says
the baron, "conspires against this glorious line, bent
on breaking it up and destroying it." From such details
we conclude that a part of our hero's misfortune, in being tricked
into marrying a monstrously ugly woman, would have been to become
engaged to a Jew.
Wagner prepared his text and began writing
the musical numbers. He was on the third of them when, in his
version of events, he realised with horror that he was composing
music in the manner of the French composer Auber. "My spirit
and my deeper feelings were desperately hurt by this discovery.
I abandoned the work in disgust. My daily study and conducting
of the music of Auber, Adam and Bellini then finally made their
own contribution to making me heartily sick of my frivolous
enjoyment of it."
He gave up writing this dreadful but revealing
little piece, but he had not yet, as Millington informs us,
given up denigrating German music, insisting in an essay of
1840 that before Mozart there was little evidence of a native
vocal art rooted in the German language and soil. You might
say that his later career was devoted to making up for this