Alexis Luko
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Laughing through tears
The soundscape of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night

Comedy is not the first thing that comes to mind when contemplating the films of Ingmar Bergman, who is primarily known for brooding atmospheres, psychological tension, and heavy themes of love, faith, and infidelity. Similar themes are encountered in his comedic films, where he uses the soundtrack to trigger laughs and drive tragicomic tensions. This chapter examines how tragedy and comedy are expressed in the sonic world of Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). Music in the film—comprised of selections from the classical music canon, sacred music, and music by Erik Nordgren—is better understood through the comedic theories of Henri Bergson, who writes about how laughter arises ‘in response to the mechanical encrusted on the living’. The mechanical is elucidated through Nordgren’s musical cues and is even associated with sound effects and vocalizations. Bergman’s soundtrack challenges the generic boundaries of comedy, highlighting the tragicomic aspects of protagonists and plot. An analysis of the sonic events leading to the film’s climax reveals how music plays a powerful role as a prime cinematic force underlying thematic tensions—regarding religion, and faith and doubt in love—eventually helping move the narrative through tears towards laughter. When Bergman offers a comic moment, it is fleeting, as the tragic is never far behind. Entwined in the tragic and comic, acting as a driving force, is Bergman’s soundtrack.

Aldous Huxley once said, ‘We participate in a tragedy; at a comedy we only look’.1 In 1954, Ingmar Bergman found himself on the precipice of calamity, a key participant in his own real-life tragedy. Allegedly contemplating suicide on a Swiss mountain pass, suffering from a flopped film project, a broken marriage, and a failed love affair (not to mention agonizing stomach cramps), he explained, ‘I had two alternatives: write Smiles of a Summer Night [1955] or kill myself.’2

Bergman had what he termed a ‘complicated’ relationship with comedy, admitting that as a young boy he was accused of having no sense of humour.3 Perhaps no one was more surprised than Bergman, therefore, when he experienced comedic success with his Bris soap commercials (1951), Secrets of Women (1952), and A Lesson in Love (1954).4 These works paved the way for Smiles of a Summer Night, which was well received as a comedy. But given Bergman’s personal struggles before shooting, it is hardly surprising that the comedy is largely driven by tragedy throughout. Bergman himself said that the film could have been a tragedy, but comedy was better for a costume film set in fin-de-siècle Sweden.5

In my book on Bergman, I examine music, sound, and silence in his more dramatic and psychologically gripping films.6 The Bergman centenary calls for a fresh perspective. As it is a time for celebration, this chapter is dedicated to comedic Bergmanian moments driven by music. Smiles of a Summer Night is a suitable starting-point for such an investigation as it is, according to Arne Lunde, ‘exhibit A’ among his comedic films.7

Music in Bergman’s films has long been recognized as significant and, as apparent in this centenary volume, the soundtrack continues to offer exciting new avenues for understanding Bergman’s cinematic world.8 We know from Bergman himself that music served as inspiration in his conception of Smiles of a Summer Night. He described it as ‘a bit of Mozart’ and also noted the influence of Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow.9 The music is rich and eclectic, drawn from the classical music canon, sacred music, and newly composed music by Erik Nordgren.10

This chapter examines comedic moments in Smiles of a Summer Night and the soundscapes in which they are embedded. I explore how music intersects with three different theories on humour. First is the ‘superiority theory’, which accounts for humour that exists at the ‘expense of characters who are particularly stupid, vain, greedy, cruel, ruthless, dirty, and [otherwise] deficient’.11 The superiority theory walks hand-in-hand with humiliation, a common trope in Bergman’s films, as expounded upon so eloquently by Paisley Livingston, who has referred to ‘a form of collective brutality’ that underlines the laughter in his films.12 Second is the incongruity theory where, according to Francis Hutcheson, ‘laughter arises from the view of two or more inconsistent, unsuitable, or incongruous parts or circumstances’ and ‘necessitates deviation from the norm . . . achieved through subversion of expectation, or exaggeration of stereotypes’.13 As we will see in the analysis below, certain musical motifs linked to individual characters in Smiles of a Summer Night can be better understood through this incongruity theory.

Third, and most central to this study, is another idea put forward by Livingston, who has theorized the inter-relationships in Smiles of a Summer Night vis-à-vis the comedic theories of Henri Bergson. Bergson wrote about how laughter arises ‘in response to the mechanical encrusted on the living’, and how ‘[i]n comedy we are shown two or several persons who speak and act as if they were bound to each other by invisible strings’.14 He described comedic moments in terms of mechanized childhood toy analogies: the Jack-in-the-box, the spring, the snowball, and the marionette.15 In Smiles of a Summer Night, the invisible strings and the ‘mechanical’, I argue, are elucidated through Erik Nordgren’s musical cues and, at times, even through associated sound effects and vocalizations.16

The first part of this chapter examines musical themes that delineate tragicomic aspects of protagonists and also demonstrates how music aids in expressing linkages and ruptures between characters. Here, music is the ultimate manifestation of the ‘invisible’ strings that interconnect characters. The second part includes a musical analysis of the flurry of sonic events that lead to Henrik’s attempted suicide. Here, music plays a powerful role as a prime cinematic force in underlying thematic tensions regarding religion and faith as well as doubt in love. The invisible string and mechanization analogies become even more significant as Henrik is pushed and pulled back and forth like a Bergsonian spring. It is music that underscores this tension, and it is music that eventually helps move the narrative through tears towards laughter. In the end, we may indeed question Huxley’s adage about only looking at comedy, as Bergman challenges us not only to participate but also—to listen.

The musical ‘Life of the Marionettes’

In the manner of a Mozart opera of mixed-up lovers, Smiles of a Summer Night is comprised of eight people and four intertwined couples. Bergman conceived of the screenplay as a pseudo-mathematical pattern whereby all couples are initially mixed up and the equation is later sorted out on a magical midsummer night.17

Henri Bergson emphasizes that ‘instead of concentrating our attention on actions, comedy directs it rather to gestures . . . the attitudes, the movements, and even the language by which a mental state expresses itself outwardly’.18 For Bergson, while action is intentional, ‘gesture slips out unawares, it is automatic . . . an isolated part of the person is expressed’.19 As argued below, music and sound are fundamental not only in delineating each individual’s gestural language but also in revealing more complex spiritual, intellectual, or psychological interconnections between members of the cast of mixed-up lovers.

Fredrik Egerman

Fredrik Egerman, who, in operatic terms, occupies the role of the ageing buffo bass, is the butt of most jokes and is linked to the sounds of ticking clocks and women’s laughter. The tick-tock that often accompanies his on-screen presence represents his position as a bureaucrat, entrenched in a realm of non-imagination; it also, as pointed out by Frank Gado, symbolizes his difficulty in coming to terms with his own ageing process.20 As for the laughter linked to Egerman, its main point is to torture, humiliate, and emasculate. It is evinced when Desirée laughs as he falls in a puddle, when she laughs at his appearance wearing silly pyjamas, and in the hysterical prolonged laughter of Anne and Petra as they contemplate what it would be like to be a man.21 Fredrik also has his own musical theme (see Figure 7.1), orchestrated for strings, trumpet, horns, piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and percussion, with an initial phrase that marches arrogantly, revealing his lawyerly propensity for order and regulation. Halfway through the cue at measure 4, the music itself laughs at Fredrik as the melody in the piccolo falls over the interval of a +7th and the trumpet, horns, and bassoons ring out with a rhythmic ‘Ha-ha-ha Ha-ha-ha-ha.’ Here, the incongruity theory is put to work at a musical level, with the first phrase serious (depicting how Fredrik sees himself) and the second phrase laughing (depicting how everyone else views him).

Fredrik’s swagger is once again neutralized when his musical theme accompanies his departure from a shop where he has collected photos of his young trophy-wife, Anne. This time, the laughing second phrase acquires Freudian undertones as it synchronizes with the sight of blocked-up cannon, an allusion to his sexual consternation over his as-yet-unconsummated marriage.

The next time we hear Fredrik’s motif, it is linked to the son of his old flame, Desirée (see Figure 7.2). His unconsummated marriage notwithstanding, it turns out that Fredrik is virile after all. But the joke is on him, as Desirée glibly refuses to admit that Fredrik is the father. But all is revealed by the music itself, which provides the ‘invisible strings’ binding Fredrik and Desirée. Fredrik junior’s cue unmistakably matches his father’s with humorous melodic ‘wrong-note’ variation, the omission of the string section, and the charming addition of the triangle (!).

Anne Egerman

But what of the mechanical ‘strings’ between Fredrik and his young wife Anne? Near the beginning of the film, when Fredrik visits a photography studio to view his wedding pictures, the associated tune is in a flowing 6/8 metre, orchestrated for strings, flute solo, and light harp accompaniment (see Figure 7.3).

Outwardly, the musical theme sounds like a Hollywood cliché one would typically associate with the romantic female lead. But, lest we get too lulled into the comfort of the generic expectations that a romantic comedy affords, we must remind ourselves that this is, after all, a Bergman film. As we soon find out, the captured wedding images of Fredrik and Anne are not actually evidence of togetherness. He prefers admiring images of his wife (even when she is in an adjacent room) to experiencing her real love in the flesh.22

The next time we hear this theme, Fredrik describes his wife to Desirée. The motive is now distilled; it enters ever so softly, up a fifth, and is only orchestrated for strings: ‘She is tender and affectionate. She likes my smoking a pipe. She likes me as if I were her father,’ he says. At ‘father’, the cue prematurely ends mid-phrase, as if the music itself winces at the very thought of equating fatherly and spousal love (see Figure 7.4).

The music might indeed wince, but Desirée is inspired. The next time we hear the motif, Desirée arrives at her mother’s, Madame Armfeldt’s, house. The excerpt demonstrates how this bit of crucial information about a weakness in Fredrik’s marriage is very much on her mind as she sets a plan in motion to win his heart. The motif is heard again as Desirée’s mother shows love for her daughter when she says, ‘one can never protect a single human being from any kind of suffering’. The next time the theme sounds, Anne looks despondently at three birds in a cage, a metaphor for being cooped up in the house in an unhappy threesome. The next time, Fredrik is once again looking at the photos of Anne. But now the motif is stripped down and accompanied by the tick-tock of a clock which fails to keep time with the musical rhythm of the cue. The sonic disconnect plays to the detachment of Anne and Fredrik, made all the more explicit as he sadly admits, ‘I understand nothing’. The cue continues to play through a cut to an idyllic pastoral scene at Madame Armfeldt’s villa and the music swells to accommodate fuller orchestration (including harp accompaniment) to respond to a romantic connection, this time between Henrik and Anne, who are rowing a boat while Fredrik looks on jealously. The final sounding of the theme occurs when Henrik and Anne pronounce their love for each other.

This musical motif is thus not simply the leading theme/leitmotif of the film’s heroine. It passes through several transformations, and with each repetition it underlines a different inter-relationship: Anne and Fredrik; then Anne, Fredrik, and Desirée; then Desirée and her mother; then Henrik, Desirée, and Fredrik; and finally, Henrik and Anne. It is a theme I call ‘faith in love’, and it suggests musical interconnection or invisible strings between different groupings of characters. The tragedy here is that the musical theme also implicitly suggests ruptures in relationships precisely by means of gradually ousting Fredrik from the mixed-up-lover equation. Indeed, his final soundscape, when he takes a last look at the photos of his beloved Anne, is distilled to merely a chiming clock.

Count Carl Magnus Malcolm

One of Fredrik Egerman’s adversaries is an army officer named Count Malcolm. A caricature lacking depth, he is associated with a musical cue that accompanies his grand entrance which occurs after a witty, self-reflexive repartee between Desirée and Fredrik:

Desirée: ‘We’re not on the stage, Fredrik dear!’

Fredrik: ‘But this is still a damned farce!’

Count Malcolm’s theme is inherently funny (see Figure 7.5). 23 It is a pompous and militaristic march, marked ffdouble forte—with accents, and is orchestrated for something approximating a military band. The music draws attention to Malcolm’s exuberance and his propensity for violence. The extremes of register, from highest piccolo to lowest bass drum, and Nordgren’s rubric, Marcia Trioffale Grande/Triumphal Grand March, musically exaggerate Malcolm’s sense of self-importance.24 But the air quickly deflates when his tune abruptly ends mid-phrase, an affect comparable to the off-screen auteur using the proverbial ‘hook’, musically subduing Malcolm’s hubris.

Some of Count Malcolm’s statements are punctuated with musical stingers, as if underlining punchlines of jokes or imagined off-screen laughter (see Figure 7.6). Take, for example, his statement, ‘[m]y wife might cheat on me […] but if anyone touches my mistress I become a tiger!’ And the reverse, ‘[m]y mistress might cheat on me […] but if anyone touches my wife I become a tiger!’

When Count Malcolm and Fredrik meet for the first time in Desirée’s apartment, Fredrik attempts to preserve his pride—a challenging task whilst outfitted in the Count’s ludicrous nightcap and pyjamas. A duel of wit, words, and music ensues as the men contrapuntally spar. While Malcolm attempts to intimidate his opponent by whistling a military tune,25 Fredrik resorts to humiliation tactics, humming La ci darem la mano from Mozart’s Don Giovanni—a seduction tune sung by Don Giovanni to the peasant-girl Zerlina in a brazen attempt to sleep with her before her impending marriage to Masetto. This amounts to a not-so-veiled reminder to Fredrik that he is up against an armed soldier countered by a not-so-veiled indictment of Malcolm’s adulterous ways.

Countess Charlotte Malcolm

When we are introduced to Charlotte, Count Malcolm’s wife, she is riding a horse in the far distance, and until she dismounts we might be under the mistaken impression that it is Count Malcolm himself. They are both linked by means of militaristic-sounding cues; but there is a musical incongruity, as her theme is grand and much more expansive than the Count’s—a sly way to further disparage him and to simultaneously suggest that she is a force to reckon with (see Figure 7.7.).

Like her husband, Charlotte is also a caricature, endearing with over-the-top passions, including seething jealousy, much like Donna Elvira of Don Giovanni who sings ‘ah, chi mi dice mai’, when she discovers that Don Giovanni has been unfaithful. Charlotte spends most of the film boiling with anger. One soliloquy in particular permits full articulation of her feelings. Modernist music accompanies her hate-filled speech along with a Bergman-close-up, a cinematic fusion of sound, dialogue, and visuals representing the most frightening recesses of Charlotte’s psyche: ‘I hate him, I hate him, I hate him’, she says. Thanks to the accompanying tritones throughout, otherwise known as ‘the devil in music’ or diabolus in musica, this is music akin to what one might hear in a horror film, making for a scene that is humorously hyperbolized (see Figure 7.8).26


The actress Desirée is an amalgam of Titania and Puck of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as she meddles with fate, generating much (but certainly not all) of the intrigue with her cunning partner-swapping plan that is enacted at her mother’s summer villa. She is associated with the harp, both sonically and visually. The harp, for example, is present when she first bursts into the song, ‘Go away all bitterness’,27 as she saunters through the streets with Fredrik in a charming scene that would fit seamlessly in a Hollywood musical. This ‘performance’ is indicative of the theatrical realm she inhabits. Harp music (particularly glissandi and arpeggios outlining 7ths and 9ths) echoes the fairy music of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and is linked to the magic wine, pastoral shots of the lake, swans, and full moons and transitions between scenes at Madame Armfeldt’s villa (itself a type of theatrical ‘stage’ for Desirée’s plotting).

Henrik Egerman

Henrik’s classical music

Henrik Egerman, Fredrik’s adult son, is unable to express himself adequately either verbally or sexually. His zealous study of theology is greatly hindered by agonizing feelings of lust for the household servant Petra and, more problematically, romantic desire for his stepmother Anne. Fredrik typically turns to a romantic classical piano repertoire to seek expression for his feelings of self-pity. Fredrik is, therefore, emblematic of the Bergmanian tortured musician who uses music selfishly and misguidedly, thus further impeding any possibility for meaningful human connections.28

For Henrik Egerman, while words continuously fail him, music provides a mode of communication. Music, in fact, becomes a powerful agent in giving voice to his subconscious desires, waking him up to his struggles between secular love, lust, and faith, and even operates by pulling the proverbial ‘strings’ to control his ultimate destiny.

Early in the film, when Fredrik and his wife retire to the bedroom for an afternoon nap, Henrik works out his jealousy at the piano in a melodramatic outpouring of Robert Schumann’s Aufschwung from Fantasiestücke op. 12. In Bergman’s part-autobiographical/part-fictionalized musings on life and art in The Magic Lantern, he writes about being awoken by the ghost of Strindberg playing Aufschwung in an adjacent apartment.29 Bergman was also familiar with Strindberg’s narrative use of Aufschwung in his Inferno, where the music frightens someone away. Something similar occurs during Henrik’s outburst at the piano, where music too acts as an off-screen or next-door magical presence, playing an active role in the unfolding of the plot. Henrik’s choice of Aufschwung is noteworthy as it depicts Schumann’s impetuous and passionate alter ego Florestan, a counterpart to the more careful and intellectual Eusebius—a nod to Henrik’s split personality in the film, which causes him to constantly waver between faith/intellectualism and love/emotion.

The music aids in ratcheting up sexual tension, serving as an expression for Henrik’s repressed sexual desires. More remarkably, however, the music also manages to break through the locked bedroom door, setting up a virtually incestuous ménage à trois between son, father, and stepmother.

When Henrik suddenly crashes Aufschwung to a standstill and sounds the first notes of Franz Liszt’s Liebesträume No 3, music synchronizes with the visuals as Henrik shifts pieces at exactly the pivotal moment when the virginal Anne begins to respond to her husband’s advances. We as audience members are left confused as to whether this is a case of chicken or egg—is the resulting synch point a response to the action in the bedroom or is it, rather, influencing the action?30 Is Henrik intuitively responding to the arousal of the couple in the next room through his music? But perhaps it is not Fredrik who is arousing Anne at all and it is, rather, her stepson Henrik stimulating action by leading the seduction ritual with his music from the next room?

The plot thickens as another synch point between music and action occurs when Henrik enters the first transition section of Liebesträume—a cadenza specifying a change to poco agitato and marked with key-changes and a crescendo. As the music reaches a dramatic peak, Fredrik woozily calls out the name ‘Desirée’, thus adding a symbolic fourth person to the mix in the bedroom and revealing that his lust is not directed at Anne at all but at the subject of his dream.

The instability of the musical passage nicely reflects Anne’s subsequent destabilization. Who is this woman ‘Desirée’? Classical music-loving audience members may chuckle knowingly. Liebesträume literally means ‘Love Dreams/Dreams of Love’, aptly chosen as an accompaniment to Fredrik’s own ‘Love Dream’. The poem (by Ferdinand Freiligrath) on which Liebesträume No. 3 is based, ‘O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst’, is particularly poignant in the context of the film as it serves almost as a thoughtful adage for all the lovesick characters in the film.31 The scene comes to an end as Henrik reaches the cadenza, comprised of arpeggiated dominant 9th chords reminiscent of Desirée’s realm. They have a harp-like character—and segue cogently into the next scene at the theatre, another dream world of sorts and the realm of Desirée.

This scene can be better understood through the lens of Bergson’s marionette and ‘dancing Jack’ theory, which identifies humour when a character ‘thinks he is speaking and acting freely’ but ‘viewed from a certain standpoint […] appears as a mere toy in the hands of another’.32 The synch points in this scene between music and action are so cogent that it is almost as if Henrik is providing piano accompaniment in a silent movie theatre. The music comes across as ‘all-knowing’, possessing an omniscience that breaks the fourth wall and reaches out to us as audience members. The music itself acts as commentator and manipulator and as a means to connect four characters, revealing their tangled inter-relationships and subconscious desires.

Henrik’s (?) jealousy motif

Henrik, like Anne, is musically complex. Besides classical music he is also linked to a cue we can provisionally identify as the ‘jealousy motif’ (see Figure 7.9). It is first heard during the magic wine-drinking scene after he cries: ‘It’s too painful to be comical!!!’ Like his statement, the climbing, rhythmically agitated melody in the strings is melodramatic and intense and so painful it becomes funny.

The cue is heard in moments of jealousy, most notably when Anne touches Henrik’s shoulder (with the ‘jealousy’ music perceived from the point of view of Fredrik Egerman), when Desirée spots Fredrik and Charlotte sneaking off for a secret and unscheduled rendezvous, and before Henrik attempts suicide.

Upon studying Nordgren’s sketches for the magic wine-drinking scene, I found that the composer originally intended to alternate the ‘jealousy motif’ with the ‘faith in love’ theme each time a character took a drink. The original conception of the scene works beautifully in interconnecting the lovers and bringing out the main themes of faith in love and jealousy or doubt in love (see Figure 7.10).

In the end, Bergman and Nordgren opted instead for stylized harp music throughout the scene, possibly in order to underline the vital presence of magic, a favourite Bergman trope. This makes an important linkage to the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it is another example of how Bergman uses music to drive the plot. The music suggests that the invisible strings are being pulled at a higher omniscient level—one involving magic and the supernatural.


For the second part of this chapter, we turn to our Jack-in-the-box analogy where, as Bergson explains, ‘the tension of the spring is continually being renewed and reinforced, until it at last goes off with a bang’.33 Bergson puts this in human terms, describing a mental condition where two feelings exist ‘as inelastic and unvarying elements in a . . . living man, mak[ing] him oscillate from one to the other [, and the] oscillation becomes entirely mechanical’.34 Bergson’s theoretical framework beautifully captures the essence of Henrik’s painful ordeal during the climax of the film as he is pushed and pulled back and forth between lust, love, and faith. What is essential to understand is that little of Henrik’s internal struggle is expressed in words—it is, rather, music that articulates his oscillations between different feelings.

There are two central climactic scenes in Smiles of a Summer Night. The first, which I have chosen not to discuss, involves the ‘game’ of Russian Roulette, where silence and the sound of the spinning gun chamber underscore the lead-up to the wild laughter of Count Malcolm. The other climax comprises Henrik’s attempted suicide, where he accidentally trips the button for the mechanized bed that pops Anne into his bedchamber. The mechanical bed is initially introduced through the servants, Frid and Petra. This is not only a nod to comedic convention but also to opera, where nurses, maids, and servants often meddle with the lives of upper-class characters. Depressing the button for the bed pops a sleeping Anne into Henrik’s bedchamber, prompting mutual avowals of love, and transforming Henrik from lovesick suicidal fool into a blissful bridegroom. The bed plays a delightful tune by Erik Nordgren orchestrated for the celesta (see Figure 7.11).

The innocent timbre, reminiscent of a child’s music-box, forms a musically incongruous prelude to the more robust and seasoned notes of a trumpet, brassy and gloriously phallic in sight and sound—a musical joke made all the more explicit through the imagery of a heavenly cherub provocatively blowing a horn above a clandestine love-nest which, we are told earlier in the film, was designed to facilitate an affair for a king.

In the case of the mechanical bed, once triggered, it is a machine that operates automatically, or is ‘possessed’, without human control. It is an example, par excellence, of Bergson’s mechanical something encrusted on the living, linking music, the mechanical, and the physical act of love at a very basic level.

Leading up to Henrik’s catharsis, Bergman forms a Bergsonian ‘snowball’ by structuring a semantically and sonically intertwined world with a series of overlapping and competing musical events. These events take place over almost eight minutes (without much in the way of dialogue) comprising no fewer than eleven sonic events and moments of sonic disruption, a technique I call aural disjuncture. Aural disjuncture is a term I have coined to describe sudden unexpected shifts from one sonic event to another.35 The constant movement between one cue and the next amplifies a sense of disorientation and highlights moments where faith in love and doubt in love collide.

Our musical climax begins with a gavotte, composed by Nordgren with an eighteenth-century temperament, reminiscent of Mozart (see Figure 7.12). The music exudes politesse and adherence to social mores, ostensibly in denial of the extreme emotional drama that has just transpired over dinner.

The gavotte is immediately followed by Desirée’s performance with harp accompaniment of Freut euch des Lebens.36

Freut euch des Lebens, referring to merriment and happiness in love, is very much out of step with a plot in which couples are torn by lust and dissatisfied in their marriages. But the music holds another layer of meaning. At the end of the nineteenth and persisting through the twentieth century, the song was transformed from one with a cautionary message to one with humorous and raunchy lyrics, thus adding a naughty layer of musical meaning.37 Had they only known, this would surely have added fuel to the censor’s fire. After all, the US Legion of Decency categorized the film as ‘Class-C immoral’.38

To this effect, could it be that the music itself has agency, playing a role in Desirée’s plotting? While Desirée performs, she faces the camera rather than connecting with her audience. The general tone in the room is emotionless. This is particularly comical when viewed in the context of Bergman’s oeuvre, where moments of diegetic music-listening are often deep and meaningful. Here, the audience is comically unaffected by the music. Desirée’s spell is not working.

Charlotte and Fredrik stumble in late to take a seat behind the enormous harp representing the tangled web that Desirée weaves while she attempts to capture Fredrik’s heart as she sings, ‘One tends […] to leave the violet unnoticed that blossoms on the path’. But her artful musical suggestion that she is a flower goes unnoticed by Fredrik. Like Henrik, Desirée expresses her emotions through music. With her professional theatre background and her elaborate plot and staging, she is making a calculated play to influence Fredrik. And it fails. In contrast, Henrik’s uncontrolled passionate music is much more effective when it slips into his father’s bedroom. So, music has magical power in Bergman’s world; but it is tricky and unpredictable, much like Puck and his magic in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Near the end of Desirée’s performance, an animated astronomical clock begins to chime in counterpoint with her song, both rhythmically synchronized and harmonized with the tune (see Figure 7.13).

The music of the clock is ‘I himmelen, i himmelen’,39 a hymn by Laurentius Laurinus, printed in the chorale book for Sweden of 1697 (Koralbok 1697).40 The religious text serves as a stark counterpart to the secular Freut euch des Lebens, perhaps acting as a moralizing force? The clock itself has a memento mori quality with its figures of a knight, princess, monk, and—most notably—the grim reaper. Astronomical clocks are usually imbued with mechanisms to predict the movements of the stars, sun, moon, and planets. Here the mechanized and musical clock, like the bed, is a Bergmanian example of mechanized motion and unmediated music (also seen in his omnipresent music boxes), devoid of human touch, perhaps suggestive of an omniscient hand at work.41 Bergman ensures that the clock has a vital sonic presence with four separate soundings of the tune,42 prompting the viewer to question: who is in control of the action? Is it Desirée Armfeldt? The magic wine? God? Frid, who becomes akin to an omniscient narrator near the end?43 Or, are these the machinations of Fate itself?

The scene quickly shifts to a musical cue for harp and strings with swans, water imagery, and superimposed birdcall. Then, another shift to Henrik at the piano, lost in the romance of his own private performance of Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu, op. 66. He cannot play two phrases, however, without thinking of Anne. We know this as he suddenly stops and the jealousy or ‘doubt in love’ motif takes over.

As Henrik reels painfully, another moment of aural disjuncture introduces the melodious and sensuous laughter of Petra. Then, in counterpoint with the laughter, the clock once more sounds the hymn ‘I himmelen, i himmelen’, yet another cautionary finger-wag from the off-screen gods, telling Henrik to halt his lustful thoughts and stay on his theological career path.

Unable to cope with the push and pull of lust, love, God, and jealousy any longer, Henrik prepares to hang himself. And then, in a moment anticipating tragedy, he trips awkwardly onto the switch for the mechanical bed. Music propels the bed with a sleeping Anne into his room, and Henrik is saved by the mysterious ‘mechanism’ of love.

Beyond representing individual characters, Bergman’s musical cues in Smiles of a Summer Night have tentacles, mechanically reaching out to other characters, revealing on a musical level the invisible strings that interconnect pairs and chains of lovers.44 For the lead-up to Henrik’s attempted suicide, Bergman moves swiftly from popular song to religious tune, to romantic piano work, to a ‘doubt in love’ motif, to laughter, back to religious tune, to birdsong, to silence, to mechanical bed music, eventually landing on the ‘faith in love’ cue. These jarring musical shifts caused by aural disjuncture create an alienation effect that aids in underlining key thematic conflicts: the struggles of church, jealousy, lust, and romantic love occurring within Henrik’s own psyche. Henrik’s oscillations make him a quintessential Bergsonian Jack-in-the-box. There is a scarcity of dialogue in the climax, which makes music and sound effects vitally important in conveying meaning. Music coils and uncoils, acting like a spring through repetitive and alternating cues, serving to unlock the secrets of Henrik’s subconscious and ultimately bringing about a happy end. Incidentally, Bergman would use the same musical techniques in the flagellant scene of his next film, The Seventh Seal (1957), also underlining oscillations between faith and doubt—but in that case through the lens of religion.45

Though Bergson’s theories help understand how music functions in Smiles of a Summer Night, the fact remains that the film treads a fine line between tragedy and comedy. As aptly put by Frank Gado, ‘Bergman’s best comedy reads the human condition as dismally as his most pessimistic films.’46 In order to remind the viewer that the tragic is never far behind, Bergman emulates a Brechtian alienation or distancing effect that dizzies and destabilizes and leads viewers to question the film and the film-maker, just as the characters in the film question their beliefs in fidelity, love, and marriage.

In Smiles of a Summer Night, music is a powerful force which incites giggles and betrays secrets about characters, their inter-relationships, and their affairs. It is used by performers like Desirée and Henrik to manipulate other characters and push the plot into new directions. Music also acts as an omniscient off-screen force—a source of magic on a midsummer night, providing a rhythmic structure to the climax of the film, mechanically swinging back and forth like a pendulum between incongruous states of laughter and tears.

1 Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun (London: Chatto and Windus, 1952), p. 324.
2 Bergman purportedly told this story to a group of students at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. In The Magic Lantern, he admits that the film was a success despite his being ‘sick during the entire shooting’ and in a ‘rotten mood’; Bergman, The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography (Laterna Magica) (New York and London: Viking Penguin, 1988), p. 345.
3 The purpose of Smiles of a Summer Night, he explained, ‘was to make money’ so that he could direct The Seventh Seal. And money he made. The film was a huge international success, winning praise with a European Film Award and the Cannes award for Best Poetic Humor in 1956. See Bergman, The Magic Lantern, p. 339.
4 For A Lesson in Love (1954), he claims in The Magic Lantern that he learned to trust the comedic instincts of his actors, Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar Björnstrand, p. 342.
5 Similarly, the Prologue of A Lesson in Love also states that ‘Lesson could have been a tragedy except for the kindness of the gods.’ Frank Gado, The Passion of Ingmar Bergman (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1986), p. 154.
6 Alexis Luko, Sonatas, Screams, and Silence: Music and Sound in the Films of Ingmar Bergman (New York and London: Routledge, 2016).
7 Few scholars have grappled head-on with Bergman comedies. Exceptions are: Paisley Livingston’s chapter ‘The Comic Device’ in his Ingmar Bergman and the Rituals of Art (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1982), pp. 110–142; Arne Lunde, ‘Through a Laugh Darkly: Comedy in the Films of Ingmar Bergman’, Journal of Scandinavian Cinema 4:3 (2014), 239–253; and Frank Gado, The Passion of Ingmar Bergman (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1986), pp. 149–158 and 180–188.
8 Charlotte Renaud, ‘La citation musicale dans les films d’Ingmar Bergman’ (unpublished PhD dissertation, Université de La Sorbonne Paris III-Censier, 2007); Maaret Koskinen, Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2010); Per F. Broman, ‘Reconstructing Ingmar: The Aesthetic Purging of the Great Model’, in Mark Conard and Aeon Skoble (eds), Woody Allen and Philosophy (Chicago and LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 2004), pp. 151–168; Per F. Broman, ‘Music, Sound, and Silence in the Films of Ingmar Bergman’, in J. Wierzbicki (ed.), Music, Sound and Filmmakers: Sonic Style in Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2012), pp. 15–31; Lawrence Kramer, ‘Music, Metaphor and Metaphysics’, The Musical Times 145 (2004), 5–18; Elsie Walker, ‘An Incorrigible Music: Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata’, Kinema 14 (Fall 2000), 21–40; and Anyssa Neumann, ‘Sound, Act, Presence: Pre-Existing Music in the Films of Ingmar Bergman’ (unpublished PhD dissertation, King’s College London, 2016).
9 Bergman mentions that inspiration for Smiles of a Summer Night sprang from his Malmö staging of Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow; Arne Sellermark, ‘Är han tyrannregissör? [and then as is]’,Veckojournalen 41 (15 October 1955), 26–29. See Livingston, ‘The Comic Device’, p. 242, and Bengt Janzon, ‘Bergman on Opera’, Opera News (May 1962), 14. Also obvious is the power of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Prior to production of Smiles of a Summer Night, Bergman had directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1941 at Sagoteatern and in 1942 at the Norra Latin Lyceum, and The Merry Widow in 1954 at the Malmö Stadsteater; Birgitta Steene, Ingmar Bergman: A Reference Guide (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005), pp. 817–820.
10 Nordgren scored thirteen films for Bergman between the years 1949 and 1964. Bergman’s consistent collaboration with Nordgren was convenient because of the latter’s role as the in-house composer at Svensk Filmindustri.
11 Noël Carroll, Humour: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 9.
12 Livingston, ‘The Comic Device’, p. 115.
13 Carroll, Humour, p. 17.
14 Livingston, ‘The Comic Device’, pp. 117 and 119.
15 Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, translated by C. Brereton and F. Rothwell (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2005).
16 I have a holistic view of the cinematic soundtrack and am interested not only in music but also in silence, in dialogue, in sound effects, and even in vocalizations such as screams and—in the case of a comedy like Smiles of a Summer Night—even laughter.
17 Gado, The Passion of Ingmar Bergman, p. 181. These love equations include: Henrik Egerman, Petra, and Anne Egerman; Fredrik Egerman, Anne, and Desirée Armfeldt; Count Carl Magnus Malcolm, Desirée, and Countess Charlotte Malcolm; Anne, Fredrik, and Henrik; Desirée, Fredrik, and Malcolm; and Charlotte, Malcolm, and Fredrik.
18 Bergson, Laughter, p. 70.
19 Bergson, Laughter, p. 70.
20 Gado, The Passion of Ingmar Bergman, p. 184.
21 The laughter embroidered into the soundtrack of Smiles of a Summer Night might seem inconsequential; but in many cases it serves as a type of cathartic release, akin to the primal screams that figure so prominently in Bergman’s more dramatic films. On screams and Bergman, see Luko, Sonatas, Screams, and Silence, pp. 187–196.
22 For Bergman, photos, letters, taped testimonials, and diary entries all figure prominently in films such as Persona (1966), Saraband (2003), Autumn Sonata (1978), Hour of the Wolf (1968), From the Life of the Marionettes (1980) (and the list goes on). Strangely, Bergmanian characters often express deeper interconnectedness when beholding their loved ones in photos or reading their letters.
23 Miguel Mera, ‘Is Funny Music Funny? Contexts and Case Studies of Film Music Humor’, Journal of Popular Music Studies 14 (2002), 91–113.
24 Thanks to Håkan Lundberg at Svensk Musik for providing me with Nordgren’s scores, which are reproduced with kind permission of the Nordgren estate.
25 I have not yet had success in identifying this tune.
26 See Luko, Sonatas, Screams, and Silence, pp. 135–175, for a discussion of the sonic world of horror in Bergman’s films.
27 The text of this song is by Bergman.
28 Examples of such characters inhabit many of Bergman’s music-themed films: Stig the violinist in To Joy (1950), Henrik a cellist in Saraband, and Charlotte a concert pianist in Autumn Sonata. For discussions of To Joy, Autumn Sonata, and Saraband, see Luko, Sonatas, Screams, and Silence. Bergman contrasts solo musicians with those healthier and happier musicians who engage in communal music-making in orchestras or small ensembles.
29 Bengt in Music in Darkness (1948) auditions with Aufschwung at a music conservatory, and Viktor in Autumn Sonata listens to Aufschwung on the radio.
30 The two poems by Uhland and the one by Freiligrath depict three different forms of love: (1) (Hohe Liebe): religious love; (2) (Seliger Tod) erotic love; and (3) (O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst) unconditional mature love.
31 ‘O love, as long as love you can/O love, as long as love you may/The time will come, the time will come/When you will stand at the grave and mourn!’
32 Bergson, Laughter, p. 38.
33 Bergson, Laughter, p. 37.
34 Bergson, Laughter, p. 38.
35 Alexis Luko, ‘Faith, Fear, Silence, and Music in Ingmar Bergman’s Medieval Vision of The Virgin Spring and The Seventh Seal’, in K. Yri and S. Meyer (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Music and Medievalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), pp. 636–661.
36 Freut euch des Lebens Rejoice in life
weil noch das Lämpchen glüht
Because the lamp is still glowing
Pflücket die Rose
Pick the rose
eh sie verblüht!
before it wilts!
The song was composed in 1793 by the Swiss poet Johann Martin Usteri and composer Hans Georg Nägeli. The tune inspired Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Send in the Clowns’ in his copycat musical, A Little Night Music. The discomfort of this scene is brilliantly parodied in Woody Allen’s Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982) with Leopold’s hilarious performance of Schumann’s Ich grolle nicht and a sung version of the Lord’s Prayer.
37 My mother grew up with this song in Switzerland and is still able to rattle off some of the more risqué verses; others I was able to find online.
38 Steene, Ingmar Bergman, p. 219.
39 My thanks to Jan Holmberg for bringing to my attention that Mattias Lundberg recently gave a conference paper about this hymn: Mattias Lundberg, ‘Reformatorn, rektorn och regissören: Laurinus I himmelen som melodiskt och teologiskt tema i Bergmans Sommarnattens leende’, ‘Speglingar av Luther i Bergman och Bergman i Luther’, Konferens Teologiska högskolan, 7 December 2017. In English: In heav’n above, in heav’n above, where God our Father dwells: how boundless there the blessedness! No tongue its greatness tells. There face to face, and full and free, the everliving God we see, our God, the Lord of hosts!
40 In Nordgren’s sketches for the score, he initially starts the tune in f minor, corresponding with the key in the chorale book, but eventually settles for e minor. The switch to e minor was probably made in order to ensure seamless harmonization with the end of Freut euch des Lebens. After all, my extensive research of Bergman’s soundtracks has revealed that he typically treats the soundtrack holistically, finding interesting ways to blend sound effects and music into one harmonious tapestry. Bergman and his sound teams often looked for commonalities between music and sound so as to permit harmonization and blending.
41 As I argue in Luko, Sonatas, Scream, and Silence, pp. 106–134, there is a difference for Bergman between music performed by live musicians and unmediated music void of human intervention.
42 On repetition in Bergman’s films, see Luko, Sonatas, Scream, and Silence, chapter 5.
43 Frid describes the three ‘smiles’ of midsummer night as three couples unite.
44 We see this in many of his subsequent dramatic films, so it is particularly interesting that we see these techniques percolating in this early comedy.
45 Luko, ‘Faith, Fear, Silence, and Music’.
46 Gado, The Passion of Ingmar Bergman, p. 184.
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