AN OPERATIC LANTERN Albert Ehrnrooth discovers the musical world of Ingmar Bergman
The film and theatre director Ingmar Bergman, who would have been 100 years old in July, made only one real music film: his wondrous adaptation of The Magic Flute. What is less well known is that he directed a number of musical theatre and opera productions, and that his plans at one time or another included a collaboration with Karajan and a film of The Merry Widow starring Barbra Streisand and Al Pacino. Classical music plays a prominent role in many of Bergman’s films; indeed, with the exception of Ken Russell, no other film director of his time delved so frequently into the minds and private lives of musicians.
Bergman’s swansong, made in 2003, four years before his death, was the television film Saraband, about a cello-playing father and daughter, its title inspired by the sarabande movement of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor. It was not the first time he had used that particular piece in a feature film. In nearly half of his films the soundtrack contains compositions by one or more of his musical house gods: J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin. All the evidence seems to suggest that Bach was his favourite:
All through my conscious life, I had lived with what Bach calls his joy. It had carried me through crises and misery and functioned as faithfully as my heart, sometimes overwhelming and difficult to handle, but never antagonistic or destructive. Bach called this state his joy, a joy in God. Dear Lord, may joy not leave me. The quote is taken from Bergman’s autobiography Laterna Magica (1978), and its religious aspect comes as a bit of a surprise. Words and imagery from the Bible are a constant source of inspiration in Bergman’s oeuvre, but more often than not it is clear that religion can provide no answers and very little comfort. Few film directors have questioned God’s existence as relentlessly as Bergman did, and the epithet ‘the Protestant atheist’ is well deserved.
Ingmar Bergman was born on 14 July 1918 in Sweden’s oldest university town, Uppsala. His father was a Lutheran clergyman which meant that there were ample opportunities ‘to catch a glimpse behind the scenes of life and death’. On Sundays Ingmar and his two siblings would listen to their father preach. ‘It was a very beautiful church, and I loved the music and the light streaming through the windows,’ he remembered. ‘I used to sit up in the loft beside the organ.’ His father would occasionally physically punish him, which led to a fraught relationship between them; he described his mother Karin as ‘beautiful, desirable and unattainable’. Many female characters in his films display facets of his mother’s cool and restrained personality. In general his women are more complex and rounded than the men, who often seem naive, indecisive or conceited.
Bergman was taken to see Tannhäuser as a 13-year-old and the experience instantly turned him into a Wagnerian. A seat in the gods at the Royal Opera in Stockholm was cheaper than a cinema ticket, and he started to attend performances on his own. Together with his sister he would adapt many of the classics for his puppet theatre and re-enact them. When his elder brother was given a laterna magica, Ingmar swapped his tin soldiers for this early image projector and his love of moving images was born.
Opera, December 2018