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Sound, act, presence
Classical music in the lms of Ingmar Bergman—a lecture-recital

From the earliest decades of sound cinema, films have incorporated classical and popular music in their soundtracks, both on screen as part of the action and off screen. One of the first major directors to make classical music a regular feature was Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman, who largely eschewed traditional soundtrack scores in favour of pre-existing music, incorporated this material into the lives of his characters, and found artistic inspiration in the lives of several Western classical composers. This chapter explores the appearance, function, and meaning of classical music in Bergman’s films, from his earliest in the 1940s to his final film in 2003. Patterns of musical use through his oeuvre suggest a conceptual framework that differentiates three ways in which such music appears onscreen: music heard (sound), music performed (act), and music sensed (presence). A series of case studies, from It Rains on Our Love (1946), Music in Darkness (1948), To Joy (1950), Summer Interlude (1951), Waiting Women (1952), Wild Strawberries (1957), The Silence (1963), Autumn Sonata (1978), In the Presence of a Clown (1997), and Saraband (2003), demonstrate how Bergman’s portrayals of musical interaction offer a sophisticated array of encoded sounds, performance dynamics, and historical meanings that resonate through the cinematic text.

This chapter looks at the appearance, function, and significance of classical music in Ingmar Bergman’s cinema.1 Bergman used his love of music to fuel his films in both form and content, largely eschewing traditional soundtrack scores in favour of pre-existing music used sparingly but precisely, incorporating music into the lives of his characters, and finding artistic inspiration in the works and lives of the composers. Of the forty-two full-length films he directed between 1946 and 2003, twelve contain excerpts from Bach, while twenty-four feature other works from the classical canon; twenty-two feature music from non-classical genres, ten feature hymns, chorales, or other church music, twenty-three use an original soundtrack, and three have no music at all. Because Bergman as a source is not particularly reliable or trustworthy, I will give less weight to what he says about music and more to how music sounds in his films.2

A musical auteur

From lush orchestral scores to electronic music, from Swedish folk songs to the ritual chanting of the ‘Dies Irae’, from phrases of solo Bach to fully staged operatic productions, Bergman’s film music traverses a wide range of genres and periods, both as sound and in words. Throughout his interviews and memoirs, music appears as anecdote, metaphor, description, and explanation, a mode of communication, and a glimpse into the mysterious realm beyond. In some cases music structures his films, frames the action, defines the form, or inspires the text; it can be a thematic trope, a plot device, and a vital part of the content. Music weaves itself through the film texture as a physical sound, as a presence in the lives of his characters, and also as an absence—a silence that, in Bergman’s universe, reveals an inability to communicate, a spiritual void, the absence of God.

Bergman stands as one of the twentieth century’s pre-eminent auteurs. In interviews and writings, he often said that he used film to communicate his artistic vision and philosophical credo as well as his personal history. But what truly distinguishes a Bergman film are its themes and recurring motifs. Bergman’s obsession with religious doubt, the artist’s fate, the search for meaning, and the impossibility of communication marks his films as much as their visual qualities do: the tight close-ups, bleak landscapes, and deliberate camera movements. In 2007, Claudia Gorbman introduced the idea of filmic mélomanes: music-loving directors who ‘treat music … as a key thematic element and marker of authorial style’,3 as if it were a new development. But from his earliest films in the 1940s, Bergman does exactly this, treating music in such a way that over the course of his cinematic career, it becomes as much a part of the narrative fabric as does the technical apparatus.

Film music or music in film?

The musical soundscapes of Bergman’s early films of the 1940s and 1950s reflect traditional Hollywood scoring. As a young director expected to produce films for commercial success, Bergman relied on staff composers to write conventional soundtracks. Yet these scores rarely saturate the films. Much of the narrative action unfolds to sounds of everyday life—city noises, sounds of nature. Only during moments of high tension and in dream sequences does the underscore intrude on the film’s diegetic soundscape, functioning to ‘guide and control audience response’4 by eliciting alarm, empathy, worry, or relief.

In several of Bergman’s early films, pre-existing music surfaces as a counterpart to the soundtrack. Music in Darkness (1948) marks the first of many to feature classical music alongside the usual film score: heard and performed on screen, this music is a significant feature not only of the film’s soundscape but also of the characters’ lives. Music and musical characters populate other early films, from Summer Interlude (1951), featuring Swan Lake dance sequences from the Royal Swedish Ballet, to Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) featuring on-screen performances of Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt. Other films use classical music to influence the soundtrack. In The Seventh Seal (1957), Erik Nordgren weaves fragments of the ‘Dies Irae’ into his orchestral underscore. In To Joy (1950), Bergman takes the opposite approach, relying solely on classical music for the soundtrack, with no original cues by film composers. While these excerpts of Beethoven, Smetana, Mendelssohn, and Mozart are largely diegetic, performed by specific characters, the pre-existing music still fulfils the function of conventional film scoring—establishing setting, creating an atmosphere, underscoring key moments.

This conventional incorporation of music changed with the 1961 release of Through a Glass Darkly, which abandons a soundtrack score to feature fragments of the Sarabande from Bach’s D minor Cello Suite, repeated four times non-diegetically. Charlotte Renaud writes:

During the period heralded in with Through a Glass Darkly, music acquires a new dimension. It no longer strives to meld within the film in order to increase the drama, nor to build up the structure. Music is there for its own sake, detaching itself from the film. […] Its presence is neither contextual nor structural, but rather metaphorical.5

Critics generally agree. Broadly speaking, Renaud’s identification of this so-called ‘new dimension’ is accurate: after 1961, Bergman’s music is often presented as an art-object with a history of meaning and metaphor independent of the film’s narrative. Yet the foregrounding of art music, situated ‘metaphorically’ in Bergman’s otherwise largely silent films, does not preclude music from providing context, delineating structure, or increasing drama. Nor was music in Bergman’s earlier films used only to increase drama or build structure. Just as he occasionally used pre-existing music in his early films, he also continued to use soundtrack scores and non-classical genres later on. Amid the vast silences and concentrated dialogues, brief, intense moments of classical music stand alongside the occasional use of jazz, pop, hymns, cabaret songs, and modernist underscores.

Rather than viewing music in Bergman’s films as a chronology of unrelated moments, I propose locating it on an ever-shifting spectrum of appearance, function, and location, not only to allow for individual nuances but also to identify differences unaccounted for by the basic binaries of classical/non-classical and diegetic/non-diegetic—the differences between music heard, music performed, and music sensed. Bergman’s pre-existing music often appears diegetically; his characters listen to it, talk about it, perform it, are haunted by it. Unlike conventional film music, Bergman’s pre-existing music, when placed diegetically, speaks both to his audience and also—perhaps primarily—to his characters.

Music as sound

In his essay ‘Listening’, Roland Barthes makes a crucial distinction. Hearing, he says, is physiological, dependent on the mechanisms of the ear. Listening, though, is a function of intelligence—a conscious choice. Barthes categorizes listening into three types: the alert, the deciphering, and the psychoanalytic;6 but he was talking about listening in the real world. What about the artificial world of film, which often does not maintain the sonic fidelity of reality? Michel Chion applies Barthes’s listening to the unreality of film to arrive at three types of cinematic listening: causal (alert), semantic (meaning), and reduced (pure sound).7 Both theorists, however, are predominantly concerned with non-musical sounds. Music is generally considered a universal language; but what it communicates, and what one is supposed to understand, remains contentious. In the following examples, I have considered four aspects of cinematic musical listening: the listening subject, the musical object, the type of attention and response, and the form of mediation. This approach reveals that Bergman’s portrayals of listening follow patterns discernible from his earliest work. As characters listen to music, we, the audience, listen to the same music; but we also watch them listen from a vantage point of the filmmaker’s choosing.

The most immediately accessible scenes of listening are those in which the ‘message’ of the music either reinforces or provides ironic commentary on the narrative. Using the music’s lyrics or cultural baggage to convey a message, these scenes rely on audience familiarity for maximum impact. But such an outcome is not guaranteed. In It Rains on Our Love (1946), former prostitute Maggie conceals her pregnancy from her boyfriend David and ignores his suggestions of marriage (the child is not his). On learning the truth, David heads to a bar, where a gramophone is playing the Bridal Chorus from Wagner’s Lohengrin. No one seems to be actively listening to the music, but the visual emphasis on the gramophone suggests that all hear it. As David weighs his two choices, commitment or loneliness, Wagner’s music draws our attention—and David’s—to the idea of marriage. Whether actively shaken by the lonely drunks around him, subliminally influenced by this theme tune of matrimony, or convinced by a conversation with a man outside, who happens to be the all-knowing narrator, David returns to Maggie.

Another love-themed example occurs in Waiting Women (1952). Marta is nine months pregnant and waiting for her labour to start. She is also unmarried and no longer in contact with the child’s father. Switching on the radio, she listens to ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice before the telephone rings; her former lover is on the other end, and Marta hangs up, refusing his entreaties. Bergman juxtaposes a final shot of the telephone with an image of a clock adorned with pastoral figures playing the flute and lyre, a visual prompt to Gluck’s music and, of course, to Orpheus himself, a symbol of marital fidelity. While Marta succumbs to the power of music, closing her eyes in relaxed bliss, the reality of her life as an unmarried pregnant woman is a far cry from the Elysian Fields that Gluck depicts. Yet, just as Gluck gives his opera an unexpected happy ending, so too does Bergman eventually reunite Marta with her lover.

In the previous examples, the music’s meaning lies in its network of reference and power of suggestion. But in other Bergman scenes, music functions as an alert, triggering action. It may still reinforce narrative themes and suggest meaning, but it also serves a more immediate purpose by drawing attention to the sound’s cause and the character’s reaction. Such musical alerts function as plot points, affecting the film’s chain of events. In Summer Interlude, Marie revisits her old summer home many years after the tragic death of her first boyfriend. As she walks through what she thinks is an empty house, the sound of a piano—playing Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude—startles her from reverie. She tiptoes through the house, past the grand piano, and finds her creepy ‘uncle’ Erland in the kitchen. In this scene, music initially functions as an alert. Startled, Marie realizes that she is not alone and understands, through a combination of sound and location, that Erland must be playing the piano. In Barthesian terms, the raw sound of Erland’s playing ‘reveals danger’ and disturbs the ‘territorial system’ both of the empty house and of Marie’s psychological space.8 Years before, this man spent his summer drunkenly playing Chopin while lusting after Marie and taking advantage of her after the death of her boyfriend. Now he literally crashes back into her life in a flurry of sound. Bergman could have used more conventional methods to signal Erland’s presence, a slammed door or creaking footsteps. Instead, we hear a piece laden with extra-musical reference. Still predatory and menacing, Erland uses Chopin’s Etude to destroy Marie’s sense of security. Here, Barthes’s and Chion’s first two categories combine—the alert becomes part of the narrative meaning.

Another such instance occurs in Wild Strawberries (1957), when Isak experiences interactive daydreams about crucial moments in his life. In one, he walks near his family’s summer home and spies his childhood sweetheart Sara playing the opening of Bach’s D-sharp minor Fugue, while Isak’s brother kisses her neck. While this scene contains live music-making and thus belongs to the trope of on-screen performance, we might also consider it a scene of listening. The music alerts Isak to a human presence; he then searches for its source and discovers his beloved with another man. From a narrative point of view, he understands that he is excluded from the happiness within. But this exclusion is suggested by the music before Isak looks through the window. While Bergman’s camera stays focused on Isak, we hear the fugue subject, the countersubject, and then a slight pause as Sara starts again, repeating the opening bars before stopping completely. This particular fugue has three voices, but we only ever hear two. Listening tells Isak what seeing confirms: there is no need for a third subject or room for a third person in this closed domestic duet.

Media of transmission

Bergman’s musical selections often imbue scenes with narrative-specific significance. Equally relevant, though, are his choices of musical medium, which reinforce narrative features and indicate the dynamic between listeners and their circumstances. In a few cases, Bergman directs our attention towards the listener rather than the performer, particularly in scenes of live jazz. Other scenes that privilege listener over music-maker include those with organ-grinders and accordion players on street corners, setting mood and providing context. Less anonymous than bands and buskers are performers in scenes of musical alerts, like Erland and Sara, whose identities give resonance to these scenes. Yet Bergman’s cinematic and psychological focus remains on the listeners, on Marie and Isak, his main characters.

All musical experiences are mediated: between every listener and piece of music are a performer and an instrument that translate notation into sound waves. Some musical experiences are further mediated through technology. Bergman’s films straddle the decades of the gramophone, radio, and tape deck; even his last two films, made during the CD era, feature only radio and gramophone. I will briefly sketch two ways that scenes of technologically mediated listening mirror the larger social and cultural codes embedded in sound media: the gramophone and the radio. The gramophone recording is a self-contained entity, mass-produced for individual purchase and consumption. Modern technology offers ways to project these recordings over loudspeakers, but in Bergman’s films such music is rarely amplified beyond the capacity of simple playback devices. If, as Jacques Attali says, music articulates a space, then gramophone music articulates a closed space, a private living-room or public bar, the machine emitting a circuit of fixed sound to a small audience.9 Characters who listen to gramophones are often similarly closed off, disconnected from the world and from one another. The bar in It Rains on Our Love is one example, with its drunken old men isolated and unable to interact. Wagner’s Bridal Chorus not only suggests lost dreams of love; it also articulates the enclosed space of the bar and the fixity of these men’s ruined lives.

If gramophones express a disconnect from outside reality, radio provides the opposite, its wireless transmission capable of covering vast spaces, linking solitary individuals in a shared listening experience. Bergman’s use of the radio captures a tension between its intended communication and its unintended side-effect of increased isolation. The medium offers his characters a way of interacting with the world on their own terms, keeping it at arm’s length and maintaining control. But the radio’s presence nevertheless offers them a way out of their claustrophobic existences. By turning the radio on, they alleviate their alienation; by turning it off, they shut out the world. It is telling that soon after Marta in Waiting Women switches on the radio, the telephone rings. As a technologically mediated ‘direct connection between human[s],’10 the telephone offers Marta a channel of contact with her ex-lover. Just as she chooses to answer the phone, opening a line of communication, she also chooses to hang up, to remain alone.

In Autumn Sonata (1978), set in a remote corner of Norway, Viktor is listening to Schumann’s Aufschwung on the radio when his wife Eva enters the room with an invitation she has written to her estranged mother. To enable Eva to read the letter aloud, Viktor turns off the radio, symbolically returning the household to its isolated state. In a film confined to the rooms of a house, mother and daughter later attack each other in typical Bergman dialogues that take a Kafkaesque approach to communication, as ‘two monologues that may never connect’.11 Similarly, when Marianne listens to Brahms’s first String Quartet on the radio in Saraband (2003) while visiting the remote country home of her ex-husband, she is interrupted by his distraught granddaughter, Karin. Switching off the radio, Marianne severs her connection to the outside world and is plunged into the world of Karin and her abusive father. In these two films, Marianne and Viktor stand just outside the films’ conflicts, lending support. Their interest in the radio represents their ability to listen in general: their capacity and willingness to understand other people. Conversely, Marianne’s bitter ex-husband, Johan, prefers the gramophone, listening to Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony at ear-splitting decibels, hunched over the machine, his back turned towards the closed door of his study, the Scherzo so loud that he cannot hear Karin knocking, just as his festering rage shuts out any meaningful connection with others.

Listening to Bach

With one exception, I have thus far omitted a privileged space in Bergman’s films—the act of listening to Bach, which Carlo Cenciarelli considers a significant trope.12 While I agree that listening to Bach is indeed significant, I suggest that it gains this importance not from being a trope but from being the opposite: a rare occurrence. Indeed, the concentrated act of listening to Bach outside of a performance context occurs just twice, in The Silence (1963) and in Persona (1966), and only in The Silence is it narratively significant.

Sisters Ester and Anna, together with Anna’s young son Johan, are stuck in a foreign city on the brink of war; they do not speak the language and cannot communicate with anyone there. The tense surroundings mirror the hostility between the sisters. In the evening, Ester turns on the radio to hear the 25th variation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The door between their rooms is open—while Ester, foregrounded, contemplates Bach, Anna and Johan speak softly in the adjoining room. With a knock at the door, the maître d’ enters and joins Ester in reverie, both listening intently, while a pietà-like tableau of Johan sitting on his mother’s lap shines through the doorway. It turns out that the words ‘music’ and ‘Bach’ in this foreign language are the same as in Swedish. Here, for the first and only time, are recognition and communication, linguistically in the words ‘music’ and ‘Bach’ and emotionally through the sound of music. In a minor key, the 25th variation is the longest, most dissonant variation of the set and shares many similarities with the Crucifixion movements in Bach’s masses. It is a painful and ruminative lament, full of suffering: this selection suggests that only in shared experiences—like this listening—are we are able to hear and understand the suffering of others.

Music as performance

When critics discuss ‘music’ in Bergman’s films, they generally refer to his use of Bach, which can sometimes portray a ‘“presence,” “contact,” and even “grace”,’13 as Maaret Koskinen writes. Language like this is frequently used in interpretations of music as a communicative and healing tool, and such readings are reinforced by Bergman’s own view of music as a ‘gift’, a ‘comfort and consolation [...] as if someone spoke to me.’14 Yet, as we have seen, his selection of pre-existing music is by no means limited to Bach, or to classical composers more generally. Nor is it always listened to. There is a difference between music heard and music performed. While music listened to may sometimes indicate communication and solace, music as action taps into a darker tradition based in a ritual of exposure, humiliation, and exile. As portrayed in Bergman’s films, the artist-character is a figure torn by the conflict between self-expression and self-preservation; to this model belong musicians as well as other types of artists: actors, circus performers, dancers. Unlike disembodied music drifting from speakers, the musical act requires the presence of a person making music, an exposure of self to the judgement of the audience.

At the centre of such a ritual lies a shaman—the artist, in this case—who acts on behalf of a community and embodies what Paisley Livingston calls a ‘mythical difference’.15 The artist is a liminal figure, venerated as an intermediary between the real world and the beyond and castigated for his difference, unmasked, and violently expelled so that society can reinstate order and unity. The masks of difference define the artist’s identity and produce belief in the artist’s so-called magic. But the dissonance between mask and identity is where Bergman begins his examination of the artist’s condition. If masking produces belief, unmasking shatters the illusion, an exposure and humiliation that is one of Bergman’s most identifiable themes. His performing artists often live on the fringe of society, excluded from its norms. Some, like Jof and Mia in The Seventh Seal, travel from town to town, presenting their primitive theatre of masks and folk music to village crowds. Others, like the blind pianist Bengt in Music in Darkness, exist within society but live as outsiders. Bergman’s cinematic treatment of musicians over five decades is remarkably consistent; his musicians are often mediocre, at best talented but unproven and at worst outright failures. In addition to dealing with a critical public, these artists also grapple with their own inadequacy.

Public performance usually takes place in urban settings: concert halls for classical music; cabarets, dance halls, or outdoor stages for popular entertainment. The spectacle of public performance relies on masks, literal or metaphorical, to maintain an illusion of the artist’s role—literal like a folk-mask or metaphorical like the persona of a star violinist. Private performance generally takes place within the domestic circle, usually in a house set rurally. Among family and friends, the performer wears no literal mask; rather, his mask is metaphorical, a domestic role, such as Eva’s role as devoted daughter in Autumn Sonata.

Music in Darkness, Bergman’s first film with a musical protagonist, follows the misfortunes of Bengt, who has lost his vision, his military career, his fiancée, and the chance to study at Stockholm’s Academy of Music. Destitute, he applies for a poorly paid piano job in a restaurant, auditioning for the owner. In this scene, Bengt’s blindness cannot be hidden. Nor can he hide his cultured upbringing or his expectation that his talent and art will be valued. He begins with a Chopin Ballade, followed by a Chopin waltz, some high-octane dance music, and finally the schmaltzy ‘Grandfather’s Waltz’. If the musical canon is a pole, Bengt slides all the way down. The owner has no use for high art and regards Bengt as a commodity of cheap entertainment, whose only function is to play on command. Throughout the film, Bengt’s talent is both exploited and denied, his dignity questioned. Yet Bergman gives the audience a happy ending: Bengt is saved by love. Ingrid, the girl he eventually marries, becomes a reflection of the film’s audience; we are not encouraged to support Bengt’s humiliation or collude with the society that excludes him but rather led from pity to empathy and admiration.

To Joy considers the personal and professional failures of an orchestral violinist who aspires to stardom. The friendly domestic fellowship Stig experiences while playing chamber music in his home is brutally juxtaposed with the film’s climactic scene—his disastrous debut in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Exposed as mediocre and humiliated in the concert hall, he retreats from all professional and personal responsibility. Portrayed as morally ambiguous, with a temper, a drinking problem, and ambition far beyond his talent, Stig suffers a fall amplified by his egotism. Eventually he is reconciled with his wife, but their happiness does not last: she and their daughter are blown up by a paraffin stove. After his musical and marital failures, Stig is faced with death and finds catharsis not through drink or stardom but through music during a rehearsal of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Playing in unison with others, away from the critical eyes of the public, he discovers what Bergman calls ‘a joy beyond pain and boundless despair ... beyond all understanding’.16 He experiences the desire that cellist Karin voices in Saraband, made 53 years later: ‘I want to be surrounded by a sea of sound, in that enormous common effort. Not sit on a podium alone and exposed. I want to belong.’17

By the late 1970s, Bergman had experienced his own public humiliation, a tax scandal that made international headlines and triggered a nervous breakdown. Claiming he would never again work in Sweden, he spent eight years exiled in Germany. During this period he made Autumn Sonata, which takes place almost entirely inside the house of frumpy, meek Eva whose estranged mother Charlotte, a concert pianist, has come to visit. The film unfolds from a double performance of Chopin’s A minor Prelude. It is played first by Eva, an amateur who expects, but does not receive, her mother’s artistic approval. Dissatisfied, Eva demands her mother’s interpretation. Charlotte acquiesces and then translates her verbal explanation of the piece into what Lawrence Kramer calls a ‘cool, controlled performance that matches her description: calm, clear, and harsh’.18 The emotional vulnerability in this double-performance scene shows Bergman at his most sophisticated. Relying on close-ups of faces rather than hands, he emphasizes the listener over the performer—the listener as an active part of the performance dynamic. When Eva performs, we focus on Charlotte. When Charlotte performs, we focus on Eva.

Both audio versions of this prelude were recorded by Bergman’s fourth wife, the concert pianist Käbi Laretei. Interestingly, the two actresses claimed they could not hear any difference between the versions.19 By having the same professional perform both versions and trying to pass them off as two distinct, incompatible interpretations, played by two characters with vastly different experience and training (in addition to their own unique physiology), Bergman, I believe, indulged a construction too far. The credibility of this scene thus hinges on Bergman’s images, not his sounds. Focusing on Eva’s and Charlotte’s faces and registering their every expression, Bergman controls viewer response by offering what film theorist Béla Balázs asserts: a character’s facial expressions ‘give an interpretation of the sounds and convey it to us’,20 so that we do not have to arrive at our own. This visual interpretation is compounded by Charlotte’s spoken explanation—Bergman sets us up to hear in sounds what he has already told us in words.

Music as presence

Bergman does not limit his portrayals of musicians to fictitious characters. References to and stories of composers from Bach to Stravinsky are scattered throughout his writings and appear in his films. He often treats these figures as semi-fictionalized characters in a universal drama, attributing to them intentions and actions based only loosely on historical evidence. Particularly in Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and Chopin, he found inspiration and consolation, identifying with their struggles to such an extent that the narrative thrust of several films is underscored by their music and biography. Lacking the instrumental skill to interpret his favourite works musically, Bergman interpreted these works through cinema.

Bergman’s tour de force in this regard is In the Presence of a Clown (1997), which weaves together a fictional tale about his real-life Uncle Carl with the music and mythology of Schubert. Typical of Bergman’s mid-to-late work, the film has no soundtrack score; the only music we hear is by Schubert. Carl is an unsuccessful inventor who, while committed to a psychiatric ward, has happened upon his next great invention: a ‘Live Talking Picture’ that will replace silent film. He decides that his first film will be about Schubert’s love affair with young countess Mizzi, who drowned herself in the Danube in 1908 (that Schubert died in 1828 is, for Carl, irrelevant). Carl himself will star as Schubert. During his hospital stay, Carl is also stalked by a clown of death. On release from the hospital, he makes his movie and takes it on tour through the Swedish hinterlands with his piano-playing fiancée Pauline.

Carl is obsessed with Schubert’s life and death and haunted by the first eight bars of ‘Der Leiermann’, the last song of Winterreise, written in 1827, a year before the composer’s death. As the film unfolds, the lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur, both in terms of Carl’s fiction about Schubert and his own sanity. Carl begins to have auditory and visual hallucinations that no one else can hear or see—except for us, the meta-audience. Presented neither diegetically nor non-diegetically, his auditory hallucinations of ‘Der Leiermann’, accompanied by the presence of the clown, thus fill a subjective space that is represented by the concept of metadiegesis: ‘that which is imagined or perhaps hallucinated by a character and which helps to construct the character’s own reality.’21

Bergman noted that he feared for his life while writing this film, a fear he channelled into the character of his Uncle Carl. Like Carl, who recreated Schubert in an attempt to find comfort and solidarity in another, Bergman recreates his uncle’s past and features his own mother as a character. He endows Carl with the same mania for film and theatre that he himself often professed. Likewise, Carl’s passion for music mirrors Bergman’s. Carl even states that music can alleviate pain, soothe illness, dispel horrors, and connect with others who similarly suffer, offering hope and giving joy. Yet these words also recall Bergman’s often-referenced belief of human connection as the purpose of art, calling into question who is actually speaking here. In a film that blurs identities as well as the line between fantasy and reality, Schubert’s music transgresses boundaries of space and time, connecting fictional characters with historical figures, imagined scenarios with documented events. The presence of Schubert serves as a metaphor for artistic companionship and offers imaginative connections between sympathetic artists and audiences, connections that transcend time and space—and even death.

* * *

According to Bergman, music provided emotional and artistic stability throughout his life. To quell his fears and anxieties, he turned to music, and he often allowed his cinematic characters to do the same. Whether as a private moment or as a communicative gesture, music in Bergman’s films sometimes functions as it did in his life, as a moment of grace. In other cases, it serves to enhance, underscore, comment on, or contradict the images and narrative; later, in his mature films, it stands for people, places, ideas, metaphors, and memories.

This chapter has sought to uncover some of the frameworks underlying Bergman’s use of classical music by differentiating the three ways that it appears on screen—as sound, as act, and as presence—and tracing these patterns through key scenes from 1946 to 2003. As we have seen, music can be part of both the narrative fabric and the technical apparatus, functioning as structure, sound, action, content, and even a kind of philosophy; it enables us as spectators to share musical experiences and histories with on-screen characters. Bergman’s films offer complex and often sophisticated insights into how cinema can explore musical interaction, opening an interpretative space within the thematic and emotional content of each film and suggesting cultural and historical implications that reach into the real world.

1 This is a much-reduced version of the 90-minute lecture-recital I gave at the Ingmar Bergman: 100 Years conference, in which I performed piano works drawn from Bergman’s films, including pieces by Bach, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt. For in-depth discussions of the ideas offered in this chapter, see Anyssa Neumann, ‘Sound, Act, Presence: Pre-Existing Music in the Films of Ingmar Bergman’ (unpublished PhD dissertation, King’s College London, 2016).
2 Bergman frequently spoke of his love for classical music, making statements like ‘[m]usic has all my life been just as vital as food and drink’ (quoted in Lise-Lone Marker and Frederick J. Marker, Ingmar Bergman: A Life in the Theater, 2nd rev. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 30), and he often referred to himself and his work in musical terms. Most of his claims have remained unchallenged, and the idea of Bergman as a so-called musical filmmaker has been widely accepted. In my work, I have closely examined some of the musical references that Bergman sprinkled throughout his autobiographical writings, using music to craft his biographical legend. I have also identified problems surrounding the film-as-music analogy, an idea Bergman frequently tossed around.
3 Claudia Gorbman, ‘Auteur Music’, in Daniel Goldmark, Lawrence Kramer, and Richard Leppert (eds), Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), p. 149.
4 Kathryn Kalinak, Film Music: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 14.
5 Charlotte Renaud, ‘An Unrequited Love of Music’, (accessed 14 July 2015). Oddly, before this statement, Renaud lists various ways in which pre-existing classical music functions in contextual and structural ways throughout Bergman’s oeuvre, listing a number of examples from the post-Through a Glass Darkly period (by which she means 1960–2003). Brink of Life (1958) has no music apart from a brief clip of the Swedish national anthem, played on the radio; thus, the absence of a traditional musical score from 1961 onwards is not new, nor should it be considered shocking.
6 Roland Barthes, ‘Listening’ (1976), in The Responsibility of Forms, translated by Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p. 245.
7 Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, edited and translated by Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), pp. 25–29.
8 Barthes, ‘Listening’, pp. 247–248.
9 Jacques Attali, ‘Noise: The Political Economy of Music’ (1985), in Jonathan Sterne (ed.), The Sound Studies Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), p. 32.
10 Catherine Covert, quoted in John Durham Peters, ‘The Telephonic Uncanny and the Problem of Communication’ (1999), The Sound Studies Reader, p. 365.
11 Covert, The Sound Studies Reader, p. 367.
12 Carlo Cenciarelli, ‘“What Never Was Has Ended”: Bach, Bergman, and the Beatles in Christopher Münch’s The Hours and Times’, Music & Letters 94:1 (2013), 119–137.
13 Koskinen, ‘Out of the Past’, in Camilla Larsson (ed.), The Ingmar Bergman Notebook: Talks and Seminars, Bergman Week 2006, translated by Bernard Vowles (Gothenburg: Filmkonst, 2006), p. 26.
14 Ingmar Bergman, ‘Sommarprat med Ingmar Bergman’, by Marie Nyreröd, broadcast on 18 July 2004 (Sveriges Radio, Sommar, i, P1), (accessed 31 July 2012), translated by Jonathan Cowell.
15 Paisley Livingston, Ingmar Bergman and the Rituals of Art (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982), p. 50.
16 Bergman via Sönderby, the conductor in To Joy, who describes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as such.
17 As translated and quoted in Per F. Broman, ‘Music, Sound, and Silence in the Films of Ingmar Bergman’, in James Wierzbicki (ed.), Music, Sound and Filmmakers: Sonic Style in Cinema (New York and London: Routledge, 2012), p. 28.
18 Lawrence Kramer, ‘Music, Metaphor and Metaphysics’, The Musical Times 145:1888 (Autumn 2004), 5.
19 Alexis Luko, Sonatas, Screams, and Silence: Music and Sound in the Films of Ingmar Bergman (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), p. 82.
20 Thomas F. Cohen, Playing to the Camera: Musicians and Musical Performances in Documentary Cinema (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2012), p. 75.
21 Julie Brown, ‘Carnival of Souls and the Organs of Horror’, in Neil Lerner (ed.), Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear (New York and London: Routledge, 2010), p. 19.
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Ingmar Bergman

An enduring legacy



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