The Profound Consolation: The Use of Bach’s Music in the Films of Ingmar Bergman (Part 4)

If for Ingmar Bergman, as we have been exploring in this series of investigations into the auteur’s films, the music of J.S. Bach provides “the profound consolation and quiet that previous generations gained through ritual”, if Bach “supplies a lucid reflection of otherworldliness, a sense of eternity no church can offer today”, then that music is always heard within these films in stark contradistinction to a far more corrupt and treacherous realm of existence — that is, the life of the everyday with all of its attendant resentments and regrets, its enmities and lost hopes, its illusions and a pained wish for the release that only death can provide. Bach’s music gives us a glimpse (a “glimmering” in the words of Bergman’s character Henrik) into the dominion of the divine (or whatever emaciated notion of divinity can be accepted within Bergman’s dark vision). Bach’s music is the result of a human act that transcends our degraded humanity; it is the act of looking beyond the vicissitudes of our fraudulent claims to identity to perceive a luminous space of pure being, of acceptance, and of love.

This access to being through music is often the redemptive moment within Bergman’s films but it is the redemption of projection. There is no guarantee of divine presence underwritten by Bach’s music. Rather his music projects a conception of humanity that is whole and unsullied. This music, for Bergman, provides hope but hope is always that which is beyond our grasp (the moment we grasp our desire, we no longer need hope). Bach’s music is the promise that is endlessly deferred and yet it is its eternal deferral that vouchsafes its ability to represent our purest aspirations. There is no possibility on this earth of living Bach’s music. Bergman seems to claim, however, that without his music (or without some other suitable aesthetic projection of the divinity obscurely hidden within a human being’s yearnings) this life would be utterly worthless, bereft of all meaning; here Bergman echoes Nietzsche’s claim that the only justification of the world was an aesthetic justification. Nowhere is the notion of Bach’s music as a projection of the better angels of our nature more readily apparent than in Saraband (2003).

Bergman’s self-proclaimed final film returns to his characters from the earlier film Scenes from a Marriage (1973), 30 years after their divorce. Marianne (Liv Ullman) impulsively seeks out her ex-husband Johan (Erland Josephson) at his remote home in the wilderness. What she finds there is a bitter standoff between the octogenarian Johan and his estranged 61-year-old son from a previous marriage Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt). Henrik lives with his 19-year-old daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius) in the lake cottage on his father’s property. The hatred Johan and Henrik feel for each other has hardened into essential aspects of their characters. The very thought of his father leads Henrik to sputtering vituperations; he joyously imagines watching Johan slowly succumb to a fatal disease to the shocked bewilderment of Marianne. Johan masks his contempt with indifference. Fully aware that an unbridled demonstration of his revulsion would only reveal a connection between them, Johan feigns apathy as yet another means of goading his son into self-pitying acts of defiance.

Henrik longs for his recently deceased wife Anna and turns Karin into a surrogate. He monopolizes her existence; he is her cello instructor, her father, her companion. They sleep in the same bed. He makes plans for her to attend the conservatory and jealously guards her destiny and her affection; he goes so far as to refuse obstreperously a generous offer for Karin to attend the Sibelius Academy at her grandfather’s expense. Henrik demonstrates his longing for his father through pitiable acts of loathing, and he demonstrates his love for his daughter through an overriding monomania. Karin simultaneously seeks approval and independence, knowing that they are, in this case, mutually exclusive. She wants to be her father’s surrogate love (she thus participates in a love from which she had always felt excluded) but resents him for wanting to place her in that position.

Johan praises Henrik’s displays of rage, preferring his son to be a seething maniac rather than the nullity he believes him to be; in this perverse manner, the father longs to approve of his son. Meanwhile, he reviews the course of his life (now that he has, in his felicitous phrase, “the answer sheet”) only to find that the totality of his existence amounts to “shit”. Marianne, who spent the majority of Scenes from a Marriage wondering if Johan truly loved her, occupies herself throughout the running time of this film querying whether love exists at all. When Karin shows her a letter from Anna to Henrik pleading with her husband right before her death to resist tying Karin too closely to him, Marianne can only respond to Karin’s insistence that the letter represents “true love” with a despondent “I don’t know”. Finally, there is Anna. She never actually appears within the film (aside from her representation in a photograph) but her image and her presence haunts the narrative from beginning to end. If this movie is an investigation of love then Anna is love’s finest human vessel. The other characters remain in awe of her; her capacity for love strikes them as incomprehensible. It is only fitting that we never actually see Anna. Just like the other world conjured up by Bach’s music, Anna is beyond our reach, beyond our understanding; in death she stands in for all that life ought to be.

Saraband is a distillation of the “chamber film” aesthetic Bergman first established over 40 years earlier with Through a Glass Darkly. Bergman divides Saraband into ten scenes framed by a prologue and an epilogue. Each scene is both numbered and titled; furthermore, every scene is a “duet” between two of the characters. Within the first six scenes, Bergman employs all of the combinatory possibilities, going through them with almost mathematical precision. The first scene (“Marianne puts her plan into action”) features Marianne and Johan, the second reveals Marianne with Karin, the third focuses on Karin and Henrik, and so on. The final four scenes reprise certain of the pairings, with the final two concentrating on Johan and Marianne, thus closing off the narrative structure. Bergman articulates many of the divisions with excerpts from the Sarabande from Bach’s Fifth Cello Suite in C Minor. There are only four other pieces of music present within the film: the Trio Sonata for Organ in E flat by Bach that plays a major role in Scene 5, the Brahms String Quartet in C Minor (the same key as the Sarabande) playing over Marianne’s tape deck at the opening of Scene 2, the Scherzo movement from Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony that serves as the centerpiece of Scene 6, and the Bach Organ Chorale that plays over the closing credits.

Setting aside the string quartet (which only briefly appears as incidental diegetic music) and the organ chorale used for the credits, the movie structures complete scenes around the remaining pieces. But clearly the most important musical presence here is Bach’s cello Sarabande, the representative of the dance from which the film takes its title. The sarabande — with its somber and intense affect and its balanced, four-bar phrases that disguise its historical derivation from a lascivious dance in the vestiges of rational gentility — serves as the perfect musical metaphor for the strained relationships explored in Bergman’s film. Each character dances their assigned role flawlessly. Even at his most seething, Henrik rarely loses control. Indeed, the scene in which he must ask his detested father for money, a scene full of seemingly choreographed retreats and returns, exposes Henrik as an apt pupil of a staid, modern Terpsichore; he performs his social dance of prostration and defiance with the utmost skill.

The melancholic strains of the sarabande encapsulate the narrative structure of the film. The framing scenes are both monologues for Marianne (although Marianne’s enfeebled and hospitalized daughter appears without speaking in the epilogue) wherein she speaks directly to the audience, first about her inexplicable desire to see Johan again and then about her experiences after her prolonged visit. The prologue opens and closes with phrases from the cello sarabande; its rich tone and murky musical gestures imbue the scene with a rich combination of human warmth and dreadful foreboding. In the epilogue, Marianne tearfully reports that for the first time she felt she truly “touched” her invalid daughter. The flashback showing Marianne’s stilted yet poignant interaction with her daughter is, not surprisingly, punctuated with an excerpt from the Bach sarabande.

The variable uses to which Bergman puts Bach’s sarabande is indicative of the peculiar nature of music and film. Music within a film (to borrow Claudia Gorbman’s phrase from the introduction to her Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music) always does something. It is always complicit in the unfolding of the narrative onscreen but, simultaneously, the narrative always inflects the meaning of the music (to reverse Gorman’s formula: the filmic image also always does something). Bach’s sarabande has no fixed, immutable meaning here (or anywhere else, for that matter). However, within Bergman’s cinematic world, this particular music encompasses and purifies all of the human desire for love and the inevitability of loss that love entails that the narrative conveys. Bach’s music does more than represent; it redeems and it provides solace specifically through its ability to tap into the ennobling possibilities that underwrite human nature. But while this music reveals the heights of human possibility, the promise of wholeness that it conveys always remains beyond the reach of the film’s protagonists.

Of all of the characters, Henrik makes the tantalizing capacity of Bach’s music to open up a glimpse of an otherworldly peace most painfully clear. Scene Five, entitled “Bach”, reveals Henrik playing the organ in a small church as Marianne wanders through the door. The rich tones of the contrapuntal texture of Bach’s Trio Sonata suffuse the intimate nave; Marianne sits in a pew and admires the conclusion of the performance. (Just as a curiosity, I might mention that Henrik later claims the organ dates from 1728; thus it is probably meant to be the organ the performer on the soundtrack, Hans Fagus, actually played — a 1728 Cahman organ housed at Leufsta Bruk in Sweden.) Henrik finishes and begins to leave when Marianne engages him in an amiable conversation concerning his daughter and her abilities on the cello, the age of the organ, his organ playing (he is substituting for the usual organist), and the book he is writing on Bach’s St. John Passion. When she broaches the topic of his deceased wife, Henrik begins to cry. Two years in the past, her death is still very present to him. Without her, life has become an empty ritual. He claims that she left him “quite simply disabled”. He relates a dream he has of death. He walks toward a river on a windless day in autumn and toward him a female figure approaches. He finally recognizes the figure as his wife and he realizes he is dead. “Is it this easy?” he asks himself. All of that worry and it turns out that death is the deliverance he sought all along.

Then it becomes clear why he was playing that piece in the organ loft when Marianne entered. Although written for performance on a single instrument, Bach wrote the organ trio sonatas to emulate compositions designed for three individual parts (two soloists and a basso continuo — that is, the bass line and chords that support the contrapuntal texture). Such a piece encapsulates in a wonderfully concise manner the key to Henrik’s personality. He is a man who desperately attempts to embody the vestiges of his family within his own person. Performing alone a musical work that represents the performance of three allows him to revivify the memory of his dead wife while also playing the part of his daughter. Perhaps this is what he means when he concludes the tale of his blessed vision of a placid and fulfilling death by insisting that he sometimes gets a “glimmering” of this notion in the music of Bach. He defines himself as a member of his family and as that family begins to fall apart he seeks out an aesthetic substitute that will provide the illusion (or is it the anticipation?) of wholeness.

Of course, the centerpiece of the film is the diegetic performance of the sarabande by Henrik’s daughter Karin. Karin has just decided to leave her father, not to attend the conservatory but rather to go to Germany on a young musician’s scholarship. She thus severs herself from the father that had recreated her in the image of her mother. The film posits this as her only choice, her only chance for survival. She insists that she does not want to be the soloist that he believes her to be. She prefers to be a member of an orchestra rather than to be isolated on the stage with everyone criticizing her every flaw. In the previous scene, Karin imagined herself as a cellist playing along to Bruckner’s Ninth (the recording her grandfather listens to with his head buried between the speakers to attain a total, albeit passive, absorption in the sound) while sitting alone against a stark white background. Her image slowly recedes into the distance. The music manifests a large social group but the imagery isolates her; she vanishes beneath our scrutiny and is utterly alone. The scene revealingly captures her dilemma: having always wanted to be a part of the love between her father and mother, she now finds Henrik’s solicitous attention cuts her off from the very sociality she believed she was missing. Her father is crushed by her decision but resigning himself to his imminent suicide (which he attempts just prior to the next scene), he asks her to end their connection in a suitable manner: by performing the Bach sarabande she has memorized.

Thus the music in this film sets up numerous tensions that it never reconciles: listener and performer, individual and group, passive aestheticism and practical enactment. Music in Bergman’s world offers hope but it does not offer answers. Or, better yet, it offers too many answers. It is says too many things without granting us access to an understanding of how these things can all be true. In this way, the music in this film (particularly Bach’s music) seems to violate the law of non-contradiction; it seeks out a stance that encompasses all others and sublates them to create a greater and truer synthesis. But if the music in this film represents a quasi-Hegelian spirit that seeks to demonstrate that all seeming opposites are illusory, the characters occupy a far more stark reality.

Bergman hints at this austerity in the opening of Scene Four where Johan stands in his study looking over a copy of Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or and the book’s presence within the film offers us one final insight into Bergman’s conception. Johan only has time to flip through the book before his son enters the room. However, anyone with some familiarity with this strange philosophical tome will recognize that Kierkegaard represents the repudiation of the philosophy of Becoming that Hegel promoted. Kierkegaard offers a severe choice between an aesthetic and an ethical life. There is no sublation of the two; there is no ultimate synthesis. Life on this earth requires a choice between extreme contraries. Moreover, Kierkegaard drives home the insistence that knowledge is gained only through the determined perseverance to draw it into the very core of one’s being:

Do not interrupt the flight of your soul; do not distress what is best in you; do not enfeeble your spirit with half wishes and half thoughts. Ask yourself and keep on asking until you find the answer, for one may have known something many times, acknowledged it; one may have willed something many times, attempted it — and yet, only the deep inner motion, only the heart’s indescribable emotion, only that will convince you that what you have acknowledged belongs to you, that no power can take it from you — for only the truth that builds up is truth for you.

Ultimately, this is what the characters of the film fail to do. They seem to know what ought to be done; they yearn for an ethical life. Furthermore, they will the right things; they see themselves as pursuing the proper path. But they cannot accept the truth of their lives into their hearts. They resist. They want to embrace the amorphous totality that music seems to offer but they are endlessly thrown back onto decisions between dichotomies. And in most cases, they make the wrong choices.

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The Profound Consolation (Part 1)

The Profound Consolation (Part 2)

The Profound Consolation (Part 3)