The Profound Consolation: The Use of Bach’s Music in the Films of Ingmar Bergman (Part 1)

Last year, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman attended a seminar examining his filmic oeuvre. During a discussion led by Lutheran bishop Lennart Koskinen concerning the relationship between God and the characters in Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (1961), an audience member purportedly shouted out: “What do you believe in, Ingmar?” The director responded: “I believe in other worlds, other realities. But my prophets are Bach and Beethoven; they definitely show another world.”

Those readers unfamiliar with Bergman’s work may be slightly put off or perhaps mildly titillated by the seemingly casual blasphemy or they may feel that the aged Bergman is simply delivering himself of a well-worn platitude (that music somehow connects us to the eternal, the infinite, the divine) in order to deflect the issue at hand. Bergman enthusiasts will doubtless recognize a pained ambivalence that has haunted the auteur throughout his life and that has served as the driving force behind so many of his major artistic creations. They will easily call to mind the protagonist from The Seventh Seal (1957), a Crusader returning home, who proclaims his entire life worthless if he cannot know with security that God exists. In that film, even the personification of Death disavows any knowledge of God’s existence; he merely escorts the deceased from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead but he has no awareness of what lies on the other side.

Bergman’s oeuvre is rife with such metaphysical anxieties. There is the monstrous image of the Spider-God in Through a Glass Darkly, and the trivial Echo-God of Winter Light (1963) that merely reflects the notions of the believer while having no real substance of its own. Countless characters in his films suffer from the combination of a torturous need for the presence of God and the utter conviction that no such being could exist. Perhaps no other artist has wrestled so long and so publicly with the discomfiting consequences of his agnosticism.

However, I am interested here in the other part of his statement. In almost anyone else’s mouth, I would certainly consider the answer to be a platitude (perhaps innocent, perhaps meretricious) but throughout his career Bergman has evinced an undeniable affinity for and deep understanding of music. This is particularly true in relation to the music of JS Bach. (Although Beethoven was also cited as a prophet, his music appears far less often within Bergman’s films — most of its appearances occurring in a smattering of his early works.) Moreover, in film after film, Bergman seems to reserve Bach’s music for particularly revealing moments within the narrative structure. Bach’s music functions to give access to a rarified atmosphere of revelation and emotional depth; it reveals something previously inaccessible within a character (to him- or herself and to us as the audience). Far more than simple emotional underscoring, Bach’s music plays a vital role in several of Bergman’s films, partly as a narrator and partly as a character in its own right, its presence intangible and yet palpably felt.

Bach would seem to be a particularly suitable composer for Bergman to employ in his attempts to articulate his simultaneous longing for and denial of the existence of God. A composer with the highest artistic ideals and willing to make great demands on both himself and others in order to achieve those ideals, Bach worked the majority of his career as a composer for the Lutheran church. Bach’s prodigious output included several large-scale works for voices and orchestra (cantatas, passions, magnificats, and a mass), concertos, and numerous works for chamber groups or solo instruments. He was highly disciplined and incredibly productive. His father being a pastor, Bergman was raised in a highly religious Lutheran family (although he never felt entirely comfortable with the religious rites of Swedish Lutheranism). He too has been admirably productive and part of his attraction to Bach may indeed have derived from the Baroque composer’s diligence and devotion to his craft.

Indeed Bergman seems to have turned to Bach at a moment in his career when his life and filmic technique were undergoing a rather abrupt change in direction. In the spring of 1959, Bergman met the Estonian-born concert pianist Käbi Laretei. Bergman saw one of her performances broadcast on television and asked a mutual friend to introduce them. Despite the fact that she was married to the conductor Gunnar Staern, Laretei and Bergman soon moved together to Dalarna where he developed the screenplay for The Virgin Spring (1960) while she practiced piano. That September they were married (she was his fourth wife). Bergman later described the marriage:

It was all a new and heroic production which rapidly turned into a new and heroic disaster, two people chasing after identity and security and writing each other’s parts, which they accepted in their great need to please each other.

Perhaps in his search for an identity with Käbi, Bergman increasingly turned to music as a source of pleasure and artistic inspiration. He even announced that he was going to take a yearlong sabbatical from film and theatrical productions in order to study the music of Bach. Although he never actually took such a sabbatical, his newfound interest in the music of Bach registered palpably in the films that he now produced. Indeed, one might see a correlation between Bergman’s attempt to come to terms with Bach’s music and the striking change in his approach to filmmaking.

The earlier films of Bergman are mostly large productions with a varied cast. In these films, Bergman places an emphasis on Expressionistic gestures and a clever use of surreal imagery (e.g., the Expressionistic figure of Death in The Seventh Seal and the faceless clocks and animated funeral carriage of Wild Strawberries [1957]). However, beginning in the early ’60s, most notably with Through a Glass Darkly, Bergman shifts toward what might be termed a chamber aesthetic for his films. Now the scripts focus in on a limited number of cast members (there are only four roles in Through a Glass Darkly) and consequently the characterizations are far deeper and more intense. The locations are typically few (Through a Glass Darkly takes place entirely around a house on the Baltic island of Fårö) and the plotlines largely eschew the vagaries of his earlier works to focus on a stark realism greatly heightened through the use of natural light employed by his new collaborator, cinematographer Sven Nykvist. It seems to be no accident that the first true “chamber film” by Bergman is also his first to feature the severe but darkly emotional chamber music of Bach.

Given his anguished agnosticism, it is perhaps not surprising that Bergman seems to have been drawn primarily to Bach’s secular works — particularly the suites for solo cello. And yet the filmmaker clearly emphasizes the spiritual aspect of this putatively secular music in his comments on Bach. According to Bergman, Bach’s music “gives us the profound consolation and quiet that previous generations gained through ritual. Bach supplies a lucid reflection of otherworldliness, a sense of eternity no church can offer today.” Bach’s secular music retains (perhaps in muted or even sublimated form) the spiritual transcendence of his more overtly religious work; it provides us with a kind of qualified religiosity more suitable to an age of disbelief and radical doubt, disdainful of sacral rites shrouded in gloomy mystery. And yet the sacred as a basic human need underwrites, according to Bergman, all of Bach’s music; the religious sublime serves as the indispensable substrate for the expressive human warmth that suffuses this music.

One only arrives at such expression through a steady devotion to rigorous work and a careful concern with craft. Through a Glass Darkly contains a short play that the young Minus wrote for his estranged father David, a successful but largely vapid author. In Minus’s parable, staged with the assistance of his sister Karin and her husband Martin, the artist-hero seeks to live a fully aesthetic life; he endeavors to make his life an actualization of pure Art. Thus he derides those who produce mere works of art — base products derived through vulgar craftsmanship — and yearns to attain the perfect form of Art through ceding his life to Death in a union with the spirit of a forlorn princess. However, when the bell tolls and it comes time to join the princess in this rarefied death, the artist-hero experiences doubts. Why give one’s life as an act of Art if no one witnesses the sacrifice other than Death? Why not use the despondency of the princess as material for mere works of art? “Such is life”, the young artist says, and wanders home to take a nap.

This parable cuts both ways. On the one hand, it is a condemnation of the approach to art that David has pursued. He has sacrificed the art of living to the feeble art of his writing. He has failed to engage with his children. He maintains a fatherly pretense, assures them that he misses them every minute that he is away, then immediately announces that he will soon depart for yet another trip abroad. He blames his writing for his absence; but it is clear that the writing permits him to evade the frayed bonds with his children. What is worse, Karin discovers in his diary that he is considering using her increasing insanity as she succumbs to schizophrenia as material for another book — a last-ditch attempt to attain some kind of Truth in his art. On the other hand, the parable warns against the illusion of a truly aesthetic life. One does not live a purely artistic existence; one must work, must produce. Such work, although it always threatens to be parasitic in relation to life, must nevertheless not be permitted to divorce itself from lived experience. A purely artistic life is a meretricious bit of false consciousness; it is pernicious insofar as it justifies a lack of engagement with the real conditions of living that must always inform art.

This engagement (an embrace that sometimes connotes comfort and at others mortal struggle) pervades those moments in Bergman’s films when the characters listen to or perform music. A particularly apt example comes from his film Autumn Sonata of 1978. This film centers on a visit between the elderly concert pianist Charlotte and her estranged daughters, Eva and the mentally ill Helena. In one scene, Eva recalls one of the rare visits of the eternally absent Charlotte and her cellist lover Leonardo. Helena, then in the early stages of her illness, childishly fell in love with the charming Leonardo and the cellist gave the child her first kiss. The following evening, Leonardo, mildly intoxicated, performed the Bach cello suites — Eva says that he played badly but beautifully. We hear the Sarabande from Bach’s suite in E flat major as we see Leonardo’s back and Helena facing him, sitting erect in a small wooden chair. Her face is resplendent. The music seems to articulate something simultaneously full of hope and foreboding; the slow dance adumbrates impending loss and yet captures a present tenderness. Perhaps, as Bergman insists, it does manage to supply a “lucid reflection of otherworldliness”, but it is an otherworldliness grounded in these sounds, produced at this moment; it is a palpable otherworldliness manifested in and through sound, produced by one corporeal being and received by another.

This, it seems to me, is the kind of religious transcendence that Bergman deems possible. It may seem rather paltry in comparison with the direct experience of an all-knowing, all-loving deity who suffuses the universe with a teleologically driven unfolding of divine intent and preordained meaning but it is the best we can hope to actually achieve and perhaps all that there really is. It is salvation of a limited but absolutely necessary kind, salvation that emerges in our feeble, stunted yet indispensable attempts to come to grips with each other. This salvation arises not in moments of divine grace but rather in moments of human effort.

It is no coincidence that the excerpt we hear in Autumn Sonata is the Sarabande from the E flat Bach cello suite. Of the ten films that feature the music of Bach, half of them (Through a Glass Darkly, Hour of the Wolf [1967], Cries and Whispers [1973], Autumn Sonata, and Saraband [2003]) employ a Bach sarabande; his latest (and what he promises to be his final) film is even named for the musical genre. The sarabande is a dance form that originated in Latin America and Spain (the zarabanda); the first literary mention of the genre comes from a 1539 manuscript from Panama. The dance was banned in Spain in 1583 owing to its lascivious movements and blatant obscenity. Nonetheless it remained one of the most popular of the energetic Spanish dances in the decades surrounding the turn of the seventeenth century. In the 1620s a French variant emerged that solidified the basic structure of the dance form and by the 1630s the rhythms of the dance began to take on the characteristic profile of a triple meter in a slow and stately tempo with an emphasis on the second beat. By the time of Bach, the sarabande was one of the slow movements within the standard Baroque dance suite. It now attained a somber and intense affect, consisted of balanced four-bar phrases, and was arrayed in a bipartite structure (AABB). Bach composed more sarabandes than any other dance type. In his hands, the genre takes on a meditative, pensive quality. The sarabandes of the cello suites in particular are redolent of a personal utterance, a furtive revelation whispered to a confidant.

The history of the sarabande would seem to have hermeneutic value for understanding Bergman’s employment of Bach’s music. Originating as a salacious entanglement of two sexualized bodies, the dance became the embodiment of balance and reserve, intense feeling communicated through poised eloquence — vivid corporeality transmogrified into ethereal spirituality and yet the original bodily element still undergirds that transcendence. The dance would seem to be the perfect metaphor for a human experience of muted divinity, a need that refuses to be squelched, and a desire that does not abate. The Bach sarabande exudes rational balance in its form and its symmetrical phrases while the sensual persuasiveness of human warmth sings through its mildly contrapuntal texture. In Bergman’s chamber films, the sarabande mirrors the director’s tendency to construct a film out of a series of duets, searching dialogues between characters that greatly need to communicate with each other but only manage to engage in a hopelessly desperate dance; they conform as best they can to the societal constraints imposed by the symmetry and the carefully wrought structure that surrounds them but they at all times threaten to emit a cry that cannot be contained, that somehow escapes those confines. The characters reach out to each other from across an abyss. What better way to represent that than through Bach’s music reaching out to us across the abyss of so much time and so much lost faith?

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The Profound Consolation (Part 2)

The Profound Consolation (Part 3)