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Things That Have Interested Me

Wagner's Happy Bears Prowl Again

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published 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 magnificence.

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 deficiency.

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