Where does music come from?
Musical meaning and musical discourse in Ingmar Bergman’s films
in Ingmar Bergman

In his last major radio appearance, in 2004 on the Swedish talk show Sommar, Ingmar Bergman devoted most of the time to his musical interests, highlighting his belief that music transcends language and manifests a deeply philosophical vision of life and beyond: music is a gift—a divine one, although Bergman did not mention God—given to provide hints of realities beyond our perception. Through analyses of the films and manuscript materials in the Ingmar Bergman Archives, this chapter focuses on four instances of interaction between music and dialogue in Bergman’s films that resonate with his comments in the show: music is able to communicate where words cannot in To Joy (1950), words and music interact to support the structure of the narrative in Autumn Sonata (1978), words about music provide powerful metaphors and communicate central parts of the narrative in Saraband (2003), and finally, music and the creation of music structure the entire narrative in In the Presence of a Clown (1997). Despite the stylistic shifts in his oeuvre across the decades of filmmaking, Bergman’s views of music, as represented in his work, have been surprisingly consistent. Whether seen through Beethoven’s Ninth overcoming death in To Joy or music’s emergence as an existential motif in Saraband, through its metaphoric uses of works and modes of performance, Bergman’s films reveal and are profoundly shaped by his belief in the essential, metaphysical nature of music.

Swedish readers of this book will be familiar with Ingmar Bergman’s last major radio appearance, the 18 July 2004 edition of the talk show Sommar [‘Summer’].1 For those to whom this broadcast institution is unknown, Sommar is a long-running Swedish radio show that is aired during the summer months and features a daily almost two-hour broadcast, in which notable Swedes muse over life and select music for the programme, as typically more than half of the programme consists of music.

Bergman’s talk was almost exclusively devoted to his musical interests. He began his programme by saying that there was ‘much song and music in [his] parents’ home’. He went on to tell a story of his first musical memory, from when he was four or five years old: a friend of his parents, an amateur violinist, performed a minor-mode Swedish folk melody from Dalecarlia. Bergman recalled having started to cry uncontrollably, as he for some reason experienced an imaginary image of his mother, lying dead in a coffin. Even at the age of eighty-six, he could recall the feeling of intense grief that this music had triggered. He recounted other anecdotes about the music in his films and about his childhood musical encounters—including how he became a Wagnerian at the tender age of thirteen. But most strikingly, for me at least, he spoke about some practical considerations during the production of The Magic Flute (1975), which he described as the most joyous and conflict-free production of his life thanks to everyone being immersed in Mozart’s music.

Later in the programme, he provided a narrative for the beginning of the slow movement of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto. For him, there was a clearly outlined story to be told: there are two characters, the angry orchestra and the comforting piano which tries to temper the outbursts, perhaps like Johan and Alma in Hour of the Wolf (1968). Music for Bergman caused a wide range of reactions, from purely magical emotional ones to more or less clear-cut narrative ones; and in the case of The Magic Flute it served as a kind of drug, affecting the entire cast and crew.

At the end of the programme, Bergman confessed his belief that music is given to humanity as a gift—a divine one, although he did not mention God—to supply hints of realities beyond the one we can perceive, and he asked the audience two questions that had been on his mind: ‘Who said that Bach plays four-hand with the Lord?’ and ‘Where does music come from; why are we the only animals on earth that create music?’ He received close to two hundred responses, letters, postcards, and emails following the broadcast, all of which are available in the Bergman Archives.

Several listeners responded to his first question: the quotation came from Swedish poet Arne Törnqvist’s (1932–2003) poem ‘Till min himmelske fader’ (‘To my heavenly father’), from the posthumously published collection I veka livet (roughly translated as ‘In the most vulnerable spot’).2 Written shortly before Törnqvist’s death, this quasi-religious poem reminded Bergman of ungraspable aspects of music and his lifelong admiration for J.S. Bach. Bach was, of course, one of the composers that occurred most frequently in his films; and he made it a habit to try to attend a performance of the St Matthew Passion every year. His films present several striking scenes featuring Bach’s music, including the two sisters’ embrace in Cries and Whispers (1972) and the recurring theme in Through a Glass Darkly (1961), in both cases a Sarabande from a cello suite.

Törnqvist’s poem reads (the English translation is mine):

Fader Bach Father Bach
Du lämnar oss inte You’re not leaving us
Det är vi som lämnar dig It is we who are leaving you
När allt detta är över When all this is over
sitter du kvar på orgelbänken you remain seated on the organ bench
Inte som om ingenting hänt Not as if nothing has happened
ty fugan kommer hädanefter since the fugue will henceforth
att sakna både kräftgång och spegelvändning lack both retrograde and inversion
Men du fortsätter But you continue
att spela fyrhändigt med Gud to play four-hand with God

Bergman’s first question suggested that it was the four-hand performance with God that mattered to him—that Bach’s music is divine—but the cryptic lines ‘the fugue will henceforth / lack both retrograde and inversion’ are intriguing too, in that they suggest that the technical aspects of composition are not of overwhelming importance. When performed, music is something of a divine mode of communication, free from technical aspects. But preoccupation with technique would occur prior to performance, as Bergman pointed out on several occasions, through hard, repetitive work, which he came to experience during his marriage to pianist Käbi Laretei. Herein lies the magic: at some point the labour will turn into music. As he expressed it in Laterna magica after having witnessed a lesson with Laretei and her teacher: ‘A phrase plucked apart into its constituent parts, practised with pedantic fingering for hours, then reassembled when the time was ripe.’3 This distinction between labour and magic is, as we will see, prevalent in his films.

The second, more philosophical question received numerous answers, both profound and speculative, ranging from sophisticated evolutionary biological and philosophical theories to homespun speculations and statements to the effect that the human species is not alone in music-making; birdsong constitutes music, too. While none of these responses could have led Bergman to any definite answers in his quest for a final understanding of music, his radio appearance illustrates just how passionate he was about music towards the end of his life, and how integral it was to his entire existential worldview. But we do not need to take Bergman at his word on this issue, as it is evident in his output; several films explicitly deal with it. Bergman placed musical experiences in a metaphysical domain; as he stated several times, these experiences go straight to the emotional centre of perception (the Swedish noun he used was känslocentrum). That domain was closely integrated with religion and religious experiences, an experiential sphere that seems to have stayed with him, despite his drift toward agnosticism.

Although Bergman reminisced about a folk melody he heard as a child, in his films musical experiences are exclusively associated with Western art music from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When he briefly talked about jazz in Sommar, it was as a means to connect with girls in the course of a summer vacation during his teens. And when popular idioms were featured in his films, it was in the context of courtship, as Erik Hedling demonstrated so well in his aptly entitled article, ‘Music, Lust and Modernity: Jazz in the Films of Ingmar Bergman’.4

Descriptions of music in Bergman’s dialogues or monologues are often stunning. Bergman provides many musical details in his dialogues, so specific—one could almost say too specific—that only serious music aficionados would spot the references: Charlotte makes the point that the fingerings in the edition used of the Chopin prelude in Autumn Sonata (1978) were suggested by Alfred Cortot, the legendary Swiss pianist and pedagogue;5 the instrument in Saraband is a Cahman organ from 1728, which happens to be the year when the best preserved Cahman organ, the one in Lövstabruk in Uppland, was built. While the organ in this scene is obviously not that instrument—it is an organ façade built on the set—the recording on the soundtrack was indeed made on the Lövstabruk organ.6

The obsession with musical detail in the performances on camera is striking, as is illustrated by the behind-the-camera and rehearsal films from In the Presence of a Clown (1997) and Autumn Sonata.7 In the former film, the hands we see on the keyboard are those of real pianists, Käbi Laretei and Hanns Rodell; and in the latter, the actors Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann received extensive training from Laretei on how to convincingly pretend to play the piano.

When I started working on music in Bergman’s films almost twenty years ago, the dominant trends in film-music scholarship included narrative theories as outlined by Claudia Gorbman8 and others, and very little attention had been given to Bergman’s use of music. At that time, film-music scholarship focused primarily on traditional Hollywood scores by composers such as Bernard Herrmann and John Williams. I did not find that kind of research particularly helpful for Bergman’s films, as so many of them used pre-composed music. Instead, the key for me became archival materials and an interview I conducted with Käbi Laretei in 2007. Since then, a number of high-quality studies have appeared, including recent ones by Alexis Luko, Anyssa Neumann, and Estela Ibáñez-García.9 Because most of Bergman’s music is pre-composed, at least in films following his international breakthrough in the late 1950s, the focus in these new studies is not on the dramatic narrative but on meaning and emotion, and on intertextual relations within Bergman’s oeuvre. I have explored my fair share of such topics; but recently, I began to pay attention to dialogues about music in the films, as they provide insights into Bergman’s aesthetics and create a context for how the music should be perceived. This chapter focuses on a few instances of interaction between music and dialogue in Bergman’s films that resonate with his comments in the Sommar radio programme. These examples will illustrate different points: how music is able to communicate where words cannot (To Joy, 1950); how words and music interact (Autumn Sonata); how words about music can provide powerful metaphors and communicate central parts of the narrative (Saraband, 2003); and how music and the creation of music can provide the entire structure of a narrative (In the Presence of a Clown).

Failing words and words telling it all

Towards the end of To Joy, the story about two orchestral violinists named Stig and Marta, the character played by Victor Sjöström, conductor Sönderby, describes his interpretive goals in front of the orchestra, beginning a bit crudely: ‘The cellos and basses should sing like hell, you see, this is about joy!’ But as he continues to define this joy—‘it’s not about laughter, or a joy that states “I’m happy”; it’s a joy so immense that it resides beyond pain and despair and beyond all comprehension’—his words falter, ‘I can’t explain it better.’

Sönderby’s deliberately awkward interpretive directions in combination with Marta’s death certainly increase the impact of the music that follows, an excerpt from the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that runs for five minutes and is accompanied by images including flashbacks and a crane panning over the orchestra and the concert hall which Stig’s son Lasse, who just lost his mother, enters. The limits of language are illustrated in the script, as this long scene is only described in a few sentences.

Stig senses someone watching him. He looks down the hall. Lasse has quietly entered and sits in the first row. He looks steadily at Stig. Sönderby raises the baton and suddenly he flames and the fire spreads and all are caught up by the fire. The huge recitative bursts up against the walls of a shattering joy beyond all comprehension.10

It is the music that carries the scene, and together with the images it makes this ending incredibly moving (although Bergman described the ending as Beethoven’s Ninth being ‘shamelessly exploited’).11

One of the longest and most significant discussions of music in a Bergman film, concert pianist Charlotte’s (Ingrid Bergman) monologue at the piano in Autumn Sonata, has been well analysed by Luko, Neumann, and others; I wrote about it in 2012.12 Additional nuances have recently appeared in discussions of this rather complex scene, however, so it is worth revisiting. The scene is significant in that it provides a different—in fact, for Bergman, unique—application of words to music: music is described neither from a metaphysical perspective nor in terms of its emotional impact, but from the perspective of a pianist whose stern and rational views of the profession and of motherhood guide her reading of Chopin’s aesthetics. The music should not sound beautiful or create associations to different worlds. Instead, she says:

Chopin was strong in emotion, but not emotional. There is a gulf between emotion and sentimentality. The prelude you’re playing speaks about restrained pain, not reverie. You have to be calm, clear, and harsh. Look at these first few bars—it hurts, but he doesn’t show it. Then a brief relief. But it disappears almost immediately. Then the torment is the same—neither more nor less. The control is complete all the time.13

The second half of her monologue is particularly striking. It goes against more than a century of discourse on Chopin, in which Chopin has been considered weak and feminine:

Chopin was proud, sarcastic, intense, anguished, and very masculine. So he wasn’t a sentimental old woman. This second prelude has to be played in a way that’s almost ugly. It must never become ingratiating. It should sound wrong, arduously or successfully struggled through. Like this.14

In her interpretation of Charlotte’s version on the soundtrack, Käbi Laretei dwells on the dissonances, making the left-hand accompaniment as important as the right hand. Her version of Eva’s performance has a nervous touch to it, slowing down significantly at some phrase endings in an attempt at tempo rubato—or simply because it is too hard—along with attempts at an independent, free-flowing right hand. Eva’s tempo is significantly faster (beginning with tempo 66 bpm versus Charlotte’s 46 bpm, although both fluctuate a great deal throughout the piece). Eva’s interpretation coincides with the historical understanding of Chopin, which was established in the nineteenth century. Jim Samson summarizes some of the descriptions:

[They] extended beyond a generous allocation of poetic programmes to incorporate a more generalised category of the poetic, suggestive of the sublime and mysterious, distilled to intimacy. Such ideas were already current in his lifetime. ‘To listen to Chopin is to read a strophe of Lamartine’; ‘Chopin is a poet, and above all a tender one’; ‘he is an elegiac, profound and dreamy poet of tones’; ‘it is poetry in translation, but a superior translation made through sounds alone’. The implication of a hidden emotional content is clear, and it became part of the ambience of the music for later generations. It is no coincidence that one of the first French biographies was published under the title Chopin ou le poète.15

Neumann was not completely satisfied with either version: ‘the melodic lines are equally clunky in both, the pedalling identical’.16 Luko pointed out that the two versions were not distinguishable either to Ingrid Bergman or to Liv Ullmann.17 Prompting Neumann to argue that ‘[i]f Laretei intended to make obvious the discrepancies in interpretation for musicians and non-musicians alike, as she claimed, she nevertheless failed to convince the two women at the heart of this scene—the women instructed to act out these differences.’18 And as Neumann further pointed out at the Bergman meeting in Lund in 2018, there is a lack of realism in Eva’s performance: not a single note is wrong although the left hand is quite demanding, including some awkward wide-reaching stretches whose difficulty even Neumann as a professional pianist could experience.

These are all valid comments, but they call for further contextualization. During my interview with her, Laretei told me that neither Charlotte’s nor Eva’s version was really her own, but that she was very impressed with Bergman’s script for the scene; she felt it was an antithesis of the predominant over-romanticization of Chopin by performers in Scandinavia, and she specifically mentioned Danish-Finnish pianist France Ellegaard. But even if neither version was really hers, it appears Laretei only exaggerated her own version in two different directions: On the album ‘Käbi Laretei – Close-Ups – The Film Music of Ingmar Bergman’19 that she released in 1978, the starting tempo is closer to Eva’s (60 bpm), while the overall phrasing is more similar to Charlotte’s; including less use of tempo rubato than Eva’s, it approaches the severe mode of Charlotte’s interpretation. Although, if I may speculate, it is also certainly possible that Laretei’s own version was influenced by Charlotte’s and Eva’s, or rather by Bergman’s script.

A small detail provides further insights into Laretei’s interpretation. In both Bergman’s director’s script and the published script, after the two performances Eva’s husband Viktor states: ‘I think Charlotte’s analysis is seductive, but Eva’s interpretation is more urgent [‘angelägen’].’20 Surprisingly enough, Viktor’s comment does not appear in the film. Nevertheless, Viktor is right on the money for Charlotte, as she states—‘laughing happily’—‘Viktor, for that remark you deserve a kiss!’ and he replies ‘with embarrassment’, ‘I only say what I think.’

Why was this brief exchange not included in the film? It certainly explains the two interpretations for those who were not able to hear the differences: the analytical versus the heartfelt. And why exactly is Charlotte happy and why would Viktor deserve a kiss? Was it because he confirmed her intentions, or because he noticed the technical deficiencies in Eva’s version? The close-up of Charlotte during Eva’s performance certainly suggests that she is getting emotional, and the omitted exchange would perhaps have become too obvious and might have detracted from the effect of the camerawork on Ingrid Bergman’s acting. The terminology, the difference between Charlotte’s analysis and Eva’s interpretation is also telling, perhaps making it rather too obvious that it is a matter of words versus music—intellect versus emotion, and according to Viktor emotion won. Either way, this short exchange illustrates that Bergman’s intentions are carried out in Laretei’s two versions, but in a subtle way.

In the Sommar radio programme, Bergman mentioned an image of Chopin; it was not a youthful romanticized painting, but a severe, sad, and non-romantic daguerreotype probably taken in the year of his death. Commenting on it, Bergman focused on Chopin’s hands, which he described as ‘large like meat mallets’ as they lay clumsily idle on his lap and seemed not to fit with the rest of his emaciated body. Bergman had been aware of this image for decades as he mentioned it in 1962, years before Autumn Sonata.21 To Bergman, this portrait appears to have illustrated the point that Chopin may not have been the delicate musician he is often perceived to have been. While I do not completely agree with Bergman’s meat-mallet interpretation of Chopin’s hands, his reading certainly provides clues to Charlotte’s monologue and performance, suggesting that the interpretation should be firmly anchored in historicist intentions combined with a spark of myth to make the narrative shine and move the audience. This image could certainly have triggered his monologue: an image turned into a model for a contrarian mode of playing Chopin, creating one of the most thoroughly analysed scenes of classical musical performance in cinematic history.

The music, the image, and the words associated with Charlotte carry the scene. The lack of significant realism in Eva’s performance is not a problem: the film is a work of art, not a real-life piano lesson. Had there been any obvious errors in Eva’s performance, as one would have expected from an amateur—wrong notes in particular—the scene would have been unbearable to watch. The prime example of such a scene is Stig’s miserable performance of the Mendelssohn concerto in To Joy; it is not only the image of Stig’s humiliation on stage and in the aftermath to this that makes the scene incredibly painful but the sound, as he makes an elementary error in the slow movement and plays partly out of tune and the performance has to be interrupted. The director’s script is quite different from the finished film. There the problem is not Stig’s performing badly, but his bad luck: the G string goes flat (as Bergman states, by ‘almost a semitone’) during the cadenza in the first movement. He tries to compensate, but has to stop and tune. Stig completes the concerto without enthusiasm, but nevertheless receives ‘friendly but not overwhelming’ applause.22 In the finished film, by contrast, the scene is much crueller; the performance is a complete fiasco because of Stig’s incompetence.

The unusual—and, according to Ingrid Bergman, unappealing—Chopin piece in Autumn Sonata can now be heard twice, in addition to the beginning when Charlotte is talking between the phrases. The audience is given an opportunity to listen carefully and compare the versions; and the perfection, the non-realism, resulting from excellent studio recordings makes a compelling contrast with To Joy. To make a blunt comparison: The ‘duelling banjos’ scene from Deliverance (1972) is not realistic either, yet it stands as one of the most iconic musical performances in cinematic history.

The remainder of the present chapter will be devoted to Bergman’s last two films, as they both summarize his musical aesthetics and constitute a worthy finale: In the Presence of a Clown, an intertextual masterpiece that has long delighted Bergman fans, and Saraband.

Musical metaphors in Saraband and In the Presence of a Clown

In Saraband, the Sarabande from Bach’s Fifth Cello Suite runs like a leitmotif throughout the film and serves as a point of reference for the incestuous relationship between father Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt) and daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius), both cellists. Other diegetic classical music is plentiful, and certain works are specifically associated with different characters: the scherzo movement of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony is used for the authoritarian and severe Johan (Erland Josephson), Henrik’s father; the slow movement of Brahms’s String Quartet in A-minor represents the mellow Marianne (Liv Ullmann), and Bach’s Trio Sonata in E-flat major is performed in the church by Henrik. The music often appears unexpectedly, but it still provides an element of coherence throughout the film. The discourse about music is also important, illustrating how Bergman used words about music as decisive metaphors in his dialogues.

A few minutes into their first meeting with Marianne, Karin initiates the story of the violent altercation with her father through her frustrations over the performance instruction for a piece she is working on. It is the piece Henrik wants her to perform at the conservatory entrance auditions, the fourth movement of Hindemith’s Sonata for Cello op. 25 No. 3, ‘Lebhafte Viertel (ohne jeden Ausdruck und stets Pianissimo)’. Bergman must have realized how contradictory and frustrating this instruction would be for a cellist, or any musician for that matter: ‘Lively quarter-note tempo, without any expression and pianissimo throughout’ is a performance mode that no musician would ever apply to this kind of piece unless explicitly stated. In such a piece, the dynamics would be varied; and certainly there would be an attempt at expression, through building phrases dynamically and emphasizing certain notes and motifs. Karin’s recollection of this piece initiates an outcry and a cry for help about her father as a teacher and human being, culminating in a flashback to the quarrel between father and daughter after which she runs away from the house. Although this piece is never heard on the soundtrack, it is used as a substitute outlet for her anger towards her sexually and emotionally disturbed and abusive father.

Saraband also includes a take on the musician’s role as a mirror of society when Bergman makes Karin say, ‘I do not believe in myself as a soloist. I want to become an orchestral musician. 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 live a regular life. I want to belong.’ Her articulated stance is in stark contrast to Henrik’s expectations of her.

This aspect would have been further emphasized in a scene that was never realized. According to the executive producer Pia Ehrnwall and assistant director Torbjörn Ehrnwall,23 Bergman planned a scene in which Karin would perform with the Swedish Radio Orchestra under Herbert Blomstedt during a rehearsal. The scene would have made Karin’s orchestral experience come to life on screen, perhaps in a manner resembling Stig and Marta rehearsing the overture to Beethoven’s Egmont in To Joy. Bergman cancelled the scene for technical reasons—the digital cameras needed could not be made available—although a deal had been negotiated with the orchestra. But let us think about it for a second: what a marvellous scene it would have been, featuring Karin surrounded by a hundred or so musicians. According to Torbjörn Ehrnwall’s recollections, the scene would have started with a close-up of Karin shot from a crane; there would then have been a panning-out to a full view of the orchestra—and what a contrast it would have provided to the rest of the film, which never has more than two people in each scene.

Twenty-five years after Autumn Sonata and fifty-three after To Joy, Bergman had found a beautiful musical metaphor of music-making as a means of having a meaningful and authentic life. It is quite the opposite from the individual’s struggle emphasized by Charlotte as well as by Stig’s efforts to break out from the collective to gain a life of glory as a soloist (and even to have his revenge, as he says at a party at a drunken stage: ‘But I will show all the bastards what it means to play the violin’ [‘Men jag ska visa alla djävlar vad det vill säga att spela fiol’]).

One of Bergman’s most remarkable but under-appreciated films, probably owing to its being made for television, is In the Presence of a Clown, his first cinematic production in eleven years. The title, an apparent mistranslation from the Swedish ‘Larmar och gör sig till’ (‘Struts and frets’), is a fragment from the Macbeth epigraph to the film, uttered by Macbeth following the suicide of Lady Macbeth: ‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more: it is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.’ But the ‘translation’ is in fact quite brilliant: Erland Josephson came up with the English title, and Bergman approved.24 The film is about life, death, and the arts, not about the clown who appears as a hallucination in the mind of the main protagonist. But the clown symbolizes death and is thus connected to the Shakespearian epigraph. The ‘struts and frets’ has more direct—distracting, perhaps—Shakespearian connotations.

The film encapsulates virtually all of Bergman’s artistic themes. In Sweden in October 1925, the two protagonists—Carl Åkerblom, a character based on Bergman’s uncle on his mother’s side, and Osvald—have been committed to a psychiatric clinic. Upon their release, they take on a magnificent project along with Åkerblom’s fiancée, Pauline (Marie Richardson), to produce and perform a silent film with live sound about Franz Schubert’s final year. It is a completely made-up story, featuring Schubert’s interaction with the Viennese prostitute Mizzi Veith, a non-contemporaneous historical figure, author of The Authentic Diary of Countess Mizzi Veith from 1908, a volume which Osvald introduces to Carl. This is a bold but dramaturgically brilliant move, replacing Countess Caroline Esterházy, Schubert’s supposed love, with Mizzi Veith; and it echoes another Bergman character, Rakel in After the Rehearsal (1984), who argues that art is just ‘shit and filth and randiness’. The two outcasts can connect with Schubert and Veith, as both are immensely suffering, abused, and maltreated servants.

The living talking picture, ‘La cinématographie vivante et parlante!’ as Bergman states in the script, is quite an innovative approach—creating talkies by merging film and theatre—but it comes to an abrupt end. After a fire in the fuse box, as Åkerblom short-circuited the fuses to get enough power, the film-screening has to be abandoned; instead, the group performs the story as a chamber play—Bergman’s equivalent of chamber music. In the sibling-like rivalry between the art forms, theatre wins, as Algot Frövik, one the audience members (and the sexton character in Winter Light, 1963), put it after the performance: ‘Excuse my saying so, but the play was greater than the film.’

At the end of the play, Schubert and organist Marcus Jacobi perform his Great C Major Symphony—his last and most prominent symphonic work—in a four-hand version, and Schubert receives devastating feedback: it is too long, the violin and woodwind parts are unplayable, and the last movement is too furious and repetitive. He responds with despair. Schubert ‘sinks’, a term that Carl Åkerblom’s psychiatrist used when asked what Schubert felt after having discovered his syphilis. It is a ‘sinking descending through fear, suffocation enclosed’. Music will not help; or, as he puts it, ‘no notes’ will help. But here, towards the end of the film, Åkerblom’s identification with Schubert assumes a different direction: it is not the syphilis that is ‘sinking’ him, but the perception of a failed work of art. By performing the film live, Åkerblom is able to connect with his own miserable life through his proxy Franz Schubert in one of Bergman’s many monologues in close-up. It is definitely one of his most moving speeches:

Schubert: The motif, the main motif, the constantly recurring motif … is a cry… of joy! I stood here at my desk and I couldn’t avoid… at every moment, I couldn’t avoid feeling in my body… in my flesh, in my sex, in my nerves, in my heart … in the terrifying racing of my heart how my illness was burrowing away… how those repulsive medicines were poisoning my nerves. Every minute, I was in hell. But God sent me that cry of joy, that cry that is so short. And it helped, it made the pain unimportant, the disease meaningless. It turned the rage of the medicines into distant echoes. I thought that… My intention was to… I thought that other people… tormented by their hellish humiliation as I am tormented… I thought I would cry out to them as to myself. And I cry out so long and so often… the pain becomes unreal and the illness a phantom.

Vogler: The large-scale form has never been your form, Schubert. You are no Beethoven. You are Franz Schubert, and that’s good enough.

Schubert: What revisions should I make?

Vogler: I can only give you one single piece of advice.

Schubert: I understand.

Vogler: Forgive me.

Schubert: Don’t ask for forgiveness, brother. You have done your friend the greatest of favours. You have told the truth.25

After Vogler leaves, Schubert looks straight into the camera and says, ‘I’m sinking … sinking.’

There is a striking difference between Charlotte’s monologue and Vogler’s assessment of Schubert. Charlotte’s utterance is original, counter-historical, while Vogler’s comments could have been quite plausible in 1828: Schubert was seen as the master of the small-scale form—short piano pieces and Lieder, in particular—as opposed to Beethoven’s reputation as a symphonic composer. Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony, for example, was not premiered until 1839. And contrasting Schubert’s music with Beethoven’s was a common trope even after Schubert’s death in 1828, as feminine traits were ascribed to his music. Schubert’s reputation would change: In 1840, Robert Schumann would talk about the symphony’s ‘heavenly length’, and he expressed a sense of joy over the overall character of the work which resembles the feeling that Bergman’s Schubert expressed.26 A counter-cultural interpretation nevertheless occurs in the film when another audience member, organist Fredrik Blom—another intertextual character from Winter Light—expresses his gratitude for the performance of the Piano Sonata D. 960, with the caveat: ‘Personally, I interpret the Schubert Sonata differently, no criticism intended. It was beautiful nevertheless, but somewhat too feminine for my taste’—again, a musician character using gendered language shedding a different kind of light on a performance.

From where did Bergman derive this dialogue and the Schubert-related threads? His sketchbooks in the Bergman Archives provide no answer, and my interview with the executive producer Pia Ehrnvall did not reveal anything—Bergman typically never talked analytically about his works during production, she told me—but given his previous intriguing comments on music in his films, he may simply have created the connection himself. The Mizzi Veith thread introduces a beautiful twist that makes artistic sense, along with fitting the intertextual elements into the film: written almost a decade later, musicologist Scott Messing mentions Mizzi Veith in the chapter ‘Peter Altenberg’s Schubert’,27 so the connection is not culturally outlandish in Schubert reception studies. And as Anyssa Neumann put it so well, through this plot,

Carl is able to merge with his invented image of Schubert precisely because the character is his own invention, but we the audience, like the villagers, are never sure which aspects belong to Carl and which to Schubert, or indeed to Carl/Schubert, who simultaneously occupies Franz Schubert’s Vienna between 1823 and 1828, Mizzi’s 1908 Vienna, and Uncle Carl’s 1926 Sweden.28

Add to this the sense shared by Pia Ehrnvall, along with Erland Josephson and Börje Ahlstedt, that Bergman himself was the real subject of the film, barely disguised, and we seem to have come full circle—with Bergman as Carl or as Schubert, the suffering artist being comforted by music.

Music is personal, like a drug—making the ‘pain unimportant, the disease meaningless’ for Schubert—but for The Magic Flute, it also provided universal comfort on the set. By sometimes questioning the common understanding of the classical repertoire, Bergman points to its complexities. But despite the fundamental differences in the statements across his oeuvre, they all point towards the essential metaphysical nature of music for Bergman: it may be Beethoven’s Ninth overcoming death, or music as an existential motif in Saraband through metaphoric uses of works and modes of performance; but in the poignant words of a character who is one of Bergman’s greatest human failures, Henrik in Saraband: ‘We walk through our entire life and wonder about death and what does and does not follow, and then it is this easy: through music I can sometimes get a hint, just a hint, as in Bach.’


I am grateful for comments from a number of colleagues that inspired and improved this chapter: Anyssa Neumann, Alexis Luko, Scott Messing, Nora Engebretsen, Pia Ehrnwall, and Torbjörn Ehrnwall. Jan Holmberg and Hélène Dahl at the Bergman Archives were of great help in locating materials.

1 Available at: https://sverigesradio.se/sida/avsnitt/373942?programid=2071 (accessed 17 March 2021).
2 Arne Törnqvist, I veka livet (Stockholm: Natur och Kultur, 2003). It is certainly possible that someone else had made the comparison, as one response letter suggested that Bergman himself had used it prior to Törnqvist’s poem.
3 Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern, translated from Swedish by Joan Tate (New York and London: Penguin, 1988), p. 224.
4 Erik Hedling, ‘Music, Lust and Modernity: Jazz in the Films of Ingmar Bergman’, Soundtrack 4:2 (2011), 89–99.
5 Cortot is also mentioned in To Joy, as Sönderby states, ‘On Thursday, Cortot arrives. There will be music.’
6 ‘Torvald Torén ‎– Six Trio Sonatas’, Opus 3 Records, CD 8802.
7 ‘I sällskap med en clown’, SVT 7 November 1997. Some of the Autumn Sonata behind-the-scenes footage was included on the DVD made to accompany the work by Birgitta Steene, Paul Duncan, and Bengt Wanselius, The Ingmar Bergman Archives (Cologne: Taschen, 2008).
8 Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987).
9 Anyssa Neumann, ‘Sound, Act, Presence: Pre-Existing Music in the Films of Ingmar Bergman’ (PhD dissertation, King’s College London, 2016); Alexis Luko, Sonatas, Screams, and Silence: Music and Sound in the Films of Ingmar Bergman (New York: Routledge, 2015); Estela Ibáñez-García, ‘Music in Play on Screen: Performing Reality in Ingmar Bergman’s Late Work’ (PhD dissertation, University of Hong Kong, 2016).
10 Translation mine.
11 Steene, Duncan, and Wanselius, The Ingmar Bergman Archives, p. 72.
12 Per F. Broman, ‘Silence and Sound in Ingmar Bergman’s Films’, in James Wierzbicki (ed.), Music, Sound and Filmmakers: Sonic Style in Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2012), pp. 15–21.
13 Translation mine.
14 In the Swedish original: ‘Chopin var känslostark, Eva, men inte känslosam. Det är en avgrund mellan känsla och sentimentalitet. Preludiet du spelar talar om återhållen smärta. Inte om drömmerier. Du måste vara lugn, klar och kärv. Se här bara de första takterna. Det gör ont. Men han visar det inte. Sen en kort lindring. Men den förflyktigas nästan genast. Sen är plågan densamma, inte större och inte mindre. Behärskningen är hela tiden total. Chopin var stolt, sarkastisk, hetsig, plågad, och mycket manlig. Han var alltså ingen känslosam kärring. Det här andra preludiet måste spelas nästan fult. Det får aldrig bli insmickrande. Det ska låta fel. Mödosamt eller framgångsrikt genomkämpat. Så här alltså. Här ska du se.’
15 Jim Samson, ‘Chopin Reception: Theory, History, Analysis’, in John Rink and Jim Samson (eds), Chopin Studies 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1994), p. 3.
16 Neumann, ‘Sound, Act, Presence’, p. 153.
17 Luko, Sonatas, Screams, and Silence, p. 82.
18 Neumann, ‘Sound, Act, Presence’, p. 153.
19 Proprius ‎– PROP 7829.
20 Autumn Sonata: A Film by Ingmar Bergman, translated by Alan Blair (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), p. 28.
21 Ingmar Bergman, ‘Min Pianist’, VeckoRevyn 11 (1962), 16–18, 79.
22 The director’s script, document B:010, pp. 53–54, in the Bergman Archives.
23 I interviewed them on 12 September 2016.
24 According to Pia Ehrnwall.
25 Translation mine.
26 Anthony Newcomb, ‘Schumann and Late Eighteenth-Century Narrative Strategies,’ 19th-Century Music, 11:2 (Autumn 1987), 164–174.
27 Scott Messing, ‘Peter Altenberg’s Schubert’, in Schubert in the European Imagination, vol. 2 (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2007).
28 Neumann, ‘Sound, Act, Presence’, p. 199.

Ingmar Bergman

An enduring legacy

Editor: Erik Hedling


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