The Profound Consolation

The Use of Bach's Music in the Films of Ingmar Bergman (Part 3)

by Chadwick Jenkins

2 January 2007

What Vogler hears in Bach is both the acknowledgement of the eternal sameness of our lives and the spiritual longing for untainted pure being -- Bach attains transcendence only through the transmutation of human despair and eternal sameness.
Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966) 

There are essentially two ways of employing music within films. There is the music that underscores scenes without being heard by the protagonists of the film and that derives from an unseen source (for instance, orchestral underscore where there clearly is no orchestra on the screen). This is referred to as non-diegetic or, more properly, extra-diegetic music insofar as it “exists” outside of the frame (or diegesis) of the film itself. It is used in several ways. It may be used to clarify the underlying emotion of the scene, revealing something of which the protagonists themselves might not be aware. Similarly, it may be used to “pre-interpret” the scene and thus influence the viewer’s understanding of the import of the images onscreen. These are related means of employment insofar as they both attempt (to put it somewhat forcefully) to subvert the critical apparatus of the viewers, compelling them to “understand” the perhaps more radically open visual imagery in a manner more conducive to giving rise to the filmmakers’ desired effect. Shortly after the advent of sound in films, directors learned that such extra-diegetic music was more effective as a subconscious influence on the spectator if it was largely unremarkable (that is to say, if the viewer barely noticed it at all).

These “unheard melodies”, to borrow Claudia Gorbman’s adaptation of Keats’s memorable phrase, essentially guided the viewer into “seeing” what was on the screen in the manner in which the sound/image compound was “heard” (of course, in reality only the image is seen and the sound heard but the cognitive effect is ideally synaesthetic). Under this interpretation of the extra-diegetic underscoring, music served to reduce the ephemeral and polysemic to a concrete and unitary meaning. On the other hand, the extra-diegetic music may counteract the emotive affect portrayed on screen creating a schism between image and sound that might be exploited for parodic (as in Jacque Tati’s Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot) or political purposes (as recommended by Hanns Eisler). Here music and image are ironically juxtaposed and, by virtue of their incommensurability, the listener/viewer is forced to accept a position of distance (somewhat akin, perhaps, to the Brechtian notion of alienation).

Given these two broad options (the music either serves to reinforce and interpret the image or the music works in opposition to the image), music’s relative independence is limited to two states: either music insinuates itself into the image so that it is wholly inextricable from it (and indeed enters in as the condition of the possibility for the “real” meaning of the image) or music stands in radical (and even critical) independence from the image so that any attempt at cohesive meaning is always already foreclosed.

Such an understanding of the relationship between extra-diegetic music and image within film seems overly constrictive. We might prefer to view this relationship as what Gorbman broadly refers to as “mutually implicative”. Music and image are both rich sources of possible meaning embedded in different semiotic systems and reconstituted by the individual viewer/listeners (coming to the film with differing expectations and background structures of knowledge) in different imaginative registers (one simply does not understand music in the same way one understands music) so that their interaction involves a dialectical relationship in which one discursive system (the image) simultaneously inflects and is inflected by the other discursive system (the music).

This more flexible approach to the interaction of music and image would seem to be appropriate to our investigation of Bergman’s use of Bach’s Sarabande from the Cello Suite in D minor in his film, Through a Glass Darklydiscussed in the last installation of this column. No one within the narrative of the film heard Bach’s piece; it was clearly an example of extra-diegetic music. And yet the piece was hardly utilized as anonymous musical fodder meant to subconsciously affect the viewer/listener in a manner that simply reinforces the imagery on the screen. Indeed, Bergman frames the various appearances of the sarabande so that they are marked for consciousness; this is no “unheard melody”. Furthermore, it is recognizably Bach. Thus the music is not an anonymous, communal sign for a given emotion but rather a highly particularized expression of restrained grief transmuted into the measured phrases of a social dance. The continuing fragmentation of the piece reflects the continuing fragmentation of Karin but the imagery and the music approach the subject through their individual modes of expression without one having to capitulate to the other.

Bergman does not limit his use of Bach’s music to the realm of the extra-diegetic, however. The other manner of using music within film is known as diegetic or source music. This is music that occurs within the frame of the narrative and is heard (and sometimes created) by the characters within the film. In this case, the viewer/listener is offered the opportunity to share in an experience of the aesthetic that often serves to identify something about the character intrinsic to the unfolding of the narrative. Diegetic music may share certain features with non-diegetic music. It may appear congruous or incongruous with the emotion of the scene or the persona on screen. It may be fitting or absurd (think of the preposterous skipping recording of the Bach concerto for harpsichord when Elliot hilariously fumbles his way toward kissing his sister-in-law in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters [1986]).

However, diegetic music holds certain properties largely unavailable to extra-diegetic music. Just as a certain camera angle allows us to look over a character’s shoulder to witness what she or he is seeing, so diegetic music allows us to “hear” over the character’s shoulder, so to speak, and witness their interaction with the music. We hear the music that the character is hearing but we also see the character listening and reacting to that music. Through the visual cues, we come to gauge exactly what the character hears when she or he hears this music. Bergman utilizes Bach’s music as diegetic music in several of his films but in this article I will limit my purview to only one example: Persona (1966). My readers will have to forgive me for yet again approaching one of the most analyzed films in cinematic history (certainly the most analyzed of Bergman’s oeuvre) but I shall have little to say about the infamous and deeply disturbing opening sequence (which has garnered a great deal of critical attention), nor shall I address the familiar themes of the vampirism of the relationship between patient and nurse, the metasymbolic function of the presence of the filmic apparatus (when the film slips from the projector, for instance), or the effacement of the separation between reality and fantasy. Instead, I would like to focus on a sequence that lasts only a few minutes and occurs very early in the film.

In the first scene, the nurse Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson) meets with the doctor in order to obtain some information about her new patient, the actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann). During a performance of Electra, Vogler fell silent for a full minute. She later apologized, claiming that she had the uncontrollable urge to laugh. The next day she failed to appear at the theatre. She was found in bed, immobile and speechless. By the time Sister Alma had been assigned to take care of her, Vogler had maintained her silence for three months. She showed no signs of mental or physical illness; she simply would not speak.

The next scene literally begins with an opening. Sister Alma opens the door of her new patient’s room. She knows she is about to encounter a celebrated actress and so perhaps it is an understandable exhibition of vanity that she pauses to primp her hair before entering. This film is replete with moments of preparation prior to performances. Alma immediately launches into her first of many soliloquies. She is 25 years old and engaged; she had graduated from nursing school two years ago. She even goes so far as to mention that her parents own a farm in the country. While bringing Vogler her dinner, Sister Alma is intercepted by the director who asks her for her initial impressions. Alma declares that she feels unprepared to assume care for the actress. If Vogler’s silence is self-imposed, that demonstrates a great act of will on her part and Alma fears that she is not equal to such determination.

The scene with which we are concerned begins with yet another opening. This time, Alma pulls open the curtains to allow the fading light of the sunset into the room. She turns on the radio and the stilted melancholy of an actress in a melodrama is heard. Vogler laughs at the insipidity of the performance but then, as the radio actress repeats the question “What do you know about mercy”, Vogler becomes irate and unceremoniously turns the radio off. Alma then admits her ignorance (it is fairly clear that she admires such performances; she knew the program was going to be broadcast before she turned the radio on, demonstrating at least a mild level of anticipation). She loves the theater, she insists, but does not have the opportunity to attend very often. Alma declares her great admiration for artists. “I think art is of enormous importance in people’s lives,” she avers, “especially for those who have problems.” She then demurs, saying “I shouldn’t talk about these things with you Mrs. Vogler; I am skating on thin ice.”

The monologue is overfull with implication. At this moment, Vogler is both artist and patient (that is, one of those who has problems and for whom art should be of enormous importance). Alma’s speech act is one of simultaneous expatiation (her taste in melodrama notwithstanding, her intentions behind playing radio dramas for patients are benevolent) and blandishment (she flatters Vogler’s beneficent role as an artist insofar as an artist too is a healer of sorts). The speech positions Vogler as patient and healer while positioning Alma as the giver and receiver of care. Already in this film, justly celebrated for the blurring of identities, Alma’s speech muddies the distinctions between the characters. It is impossible to read Vogler’s reaction; her face remains an enigma—at times evincing fear shading into disdain and at times a gentle sadness.

Alma turns the radio back on, searching for music. The radio, positioned directly next to the bed, bathes Vogler’s face in light. The music is the slow movement from JS Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major. This is not the first time that Bergman portrayed an ill woman listening to Bach in one of his films. In The Silence (1963), Ester (Ingrid Thulin) listens to a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on the radio; this scene plays on the legend that Bach composed the piece to be performed by the harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg for the Russian ambassador Count Keyserling, who suffered egregiously from insomnia. According to the legend, the piece was designed to alleviate suffering. Ester, invalid and reviled by her voluptuous sister for whom Ester seems to feel more than a sisterly love, seeks solace in Bach’s music and for a brief moment the fragile ties between the sisters seem more secure. It is a brief moment indeed but for just that moment the placidity of the music seems to have cleared a space in which one could again feel whole.

Returning to Persona, we might expect a similar “listening” experience in which the character turns to the healing presence of Bach’s music. And a casual viewing of the scene might lead us to believe that this is precisely what Bergman gives us. The excerpt from the Violin Concerto comes from the end of the movement. Indeed the excerpt opens with a cadence that serves to close off the first half of the movement—thus Bergman begins with a marker of closure. The cadence accompanies Alma’s departure from the room and sets the stage for the first moment in the film during which the viewer is left alone with the ever-silent Mrs. Vogler. After Alma leaves the room, Vogler turns her face toward the radio—her face fills the entire canvas of the screen—and the next section of the movement begins. The throbbing accompaniment of the orchestra supports the yearning strains of the plaintive solo violin. The melodic lines of the violin ascend repeatedly only to collapse again and again to the lower register. The movement is a perfect illustration of Bach’s ability to utilize a few short motives that suffuse a piece entirely while combining them with melodic gestures that depart from these motives, breaking free from their constraints in order to obtain a more direct form of expression. If the throbbing accompaniment and the ubiquitous motives seem to speak to the grim repetition and tedium that leads Bergman’s characters to despair in quotidian life then these freer moments of expression allude to something beyond the grasp of the everyday, to that presence that Bergman and his characters desire but dare not accept as actually present.

Meanwhile Bergman does something rather remarkably illusionistic. As the piece proceeds in its inexorably measured pace, Bergman slowly dims the illumination of Vogler’s face, creating an effect startlingly similar to that of a lunar eclipse. As the music continues, Vogler’s visage dissipates into shadow; her somber face loses the markers that distinguish it. It becomes a mask, an empty space devoid of expression, devoid of meaning. This gesture is so effective that we are apt to forget its utter impossibility. Although we might imagine that the dimming illumination is the result of the setting sun, we should remember that the radio was the primary source of light upon Vogler’s face and it remains on throughout the scene. What we are “seeing” is not reality as such (it cannot be; the light from the radio should continue to glow) but rather we are offered a glimpse into Vogler’s manner of hearing Bach.

In a later scene, the doctor accuses Vogler of maintaining silence in her impossible quest to obtain the plenitude of being, not seeming. That is, the actress wants to be “seen through” as she is in her full presence—or better, her presentness, her immediacy. Trained to wear a series of masks, to take on a variety of personas, Vogler fears that there is no direct being. There is nothing that lacks premeditation and in that distance from being, falsity necessarily emerges. What she hears in Bach is both the acknowledgement of the eternal sameness of our lives and the spiritual longing for untainted pure being—and indeed as is true of all artistic achievements in Bergman’s vision, Bach attains transcendence only through the transmutation of human despair and eternal sameness. Hope exists only within the abyss of despondency. But rather than finding solace in the transcendent vision offered by Bach’s music, Vogler becomes literally effaced. She does not vicariously share in the achievement of the music but rather allows its triumph of expression to sap her of her features, of the possibility of her expression. Overwhelmed, she finally sighs—the first vocal sound that she has emitted thus far in the film. The sigh itself sounds like a hollow echo of the vocality of the solo violin; Bach’s music, Bergman seems to suggest, is far more eloquent, far more present. Vogler has receded into nullity, an empty cipher. And it is in fact this nullified state that allows Vogler to eventually empty Alma of her vitality—thus the vampiric undertones of their relationship.

In this reading, we get some glimpse of the possibilities inherent in the mutually implicative relationship between sound and image. Bach’s music here is not simply a hermeneutic device (or worse, a compulsive force) that underwrites the meaning of the scene. It offers no emotive mirror in which we can behold unaltered the inner workings of Vogler’s soul. Rather the music sets in motion an emotive process that simultaneously reveals and conceals itself within the ever-fading expression of Vogler’s face. In a sense, the music eclipses Vogler. All of that transcendent presence, that closeness to the being of God, that Bergman discerns in Bach’s music need not always provide a spiritually liberating experience for the listener. Rather, this scene seems to suggest that, at times, the divine presence in the music only serves to emphasize the nullity of existence.

* * *

The Profound Consolation (Part 1)

The Profound Consolation (Part 2)

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