Two things I am not: an expert on film and an interpreter of Chopin. Having played Chopin extensively as a teenager, I eventually came to the conclusion that although I’m second to none in my love and admiration for the composer, I simply lack the innate sense of rhythm and phrasing needed to play good Chopin. One work of his which has always been of special significance to me is the 24 Preludes, Op. 28. From the time I discovered it as a child to the time I came across the young Ivan Moravec’s recording of it, which to this day leaves me spellbound, I felt that I was “in conversation” with this work—ruminating on it without playing it.
A more recent fascination I developed is the films of Ingmar Bergman. As I am better versed in literature than in film, Bergman, whose films could easily make for great novels, and who tackled exactly the same themes as writers I admire such as Chekhov, Faulkner, and Waugh, every bit as well, immediately struck a chord with me. Bergman paints in great detail a panorama of human relations, often focusing on its most uncomfortable facets. Many aspects of his work never fail to amaze me, such as the “unspoken epiphanies” in some of his endings (like in Winter Light), but there is one particular aspect I cannot overlook, and that is his acute relationship to music. Often in movies, we hear the occasional quote from Beethoven or Rachmaninoff as an enhanced accompanying score. This isn’t the case with Bergman, who uses music as a detailed description of the emotional and psychological state of his characters. In Cries and Whispers, two works of music are heard: Bach’s Sarabande from the C minor cello suite, and Chopin’s A minor mazurka, Op. 17/4. The monophonic Sarabande perfectly describes the pervasive feeling of despondency, and the A minor mazurka, which begins and ends with a tonally ambiguous question, reflects the discord and lack of understanding between the three sisters and the other characters. The way in which this friction is described in such great detail is not dissimilar to the way Wagner, in the first act of Die Walküre, describes the tension between Sieglinde, Hunding, and Siegmund. Contrary to what we would expect, Wagner describes the impending outburst and revelations in the purely orchestral sections, where the characters don’t sing, and instead the music paints the whole picture. In 1978, six years after Cries and Whispers, Bergman was to write and direct a film whose central conflict is entirely tied in with Chopin: Autumn Sonata. Incidentally (or not at all), the work of Chopin in question is also tonally ambiguous, and also in A minor—the second of the 24 Preludes.
Here, I must make a small confession: I’m somewhat reluctant to engage with books or plays about classical music, and I usually find myself uncomfortable whenever it is mentioned for more than a paragraph. I don’t exactly know why, but I’m irked by Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, which revolves around classical music, but whose description of it is not quite accurate, to say the least, and the scene recalling a performance of Tchaikovsky’s A minor piano trio in Doctor Zhivago left me feeling completely indifferent to the mention of a work I dearly love. But in Autumn Sonata, when renowned pianist Charlotte Andergast (played by Ingrid Bergman in her last film role) speaks to her daughter Eva (played by Liv Ullmann) about the characteristics of the A minor Chopin prelude which Eva had just played to her, not a syllable sounded out of place. Every single word spoken by Charlotte could have easily been said in a masterclass. When Eva plays a wrong figuration in the eighth bar of the prelude, Charlotte’s slightly jarred expression is precisely how any pianist would react at hearing a musical figure so altered.
“Chopin was emotional, but not sentimental,” says Charlotte to her daughter. “Feeling is very far from sentimentality. The prelude tells of pain, not reverie. You have to be calm, clear, and harsh. It hurts, but he doesn’t show it. Then a short relief (bar 6). But it evaporates immediately, and the pain is the same (bar 8). Total restraint the whole time. Chopin was proud, passionate, tormented, and very manly. He wasn’t a sentimental old woman. This prelude must sound almost ugly. It is never ingratiating, it should sound wrong. You have to battle your way through it and emerge triumphant…. Like this,” she finally declares, before playing it herself.
The A minor prelude stands in stark contrast to the ones before and after it. Unlike the warm and welcoming C major prelude, which opens this glorious cycle, and the joyful and vivacious third one in G major, it is tonally ambiguous (opening in E minor, then cadencing in G major, and only reaching A minor at the very end). Its character, as Charlotte rightly pointed out, is painful, unsettled (“it should sound wrong”), and severe. It is not the music of comfort, or even of yearning, like the famous E minor prelude. Rather, it is the music of judgment, whose verdict is that a long and arduous journey will have to be embarked on before we reach the tonic. And no consolation is to be found in A minor, only dejection and gloom.
It is precisely the concepts of ambiguity and judgment that are central to Autumn Sonata. The film opens with Eva’s invitation to her mother to come and visit her and her husband, the honest and forthcoming Viktor, after more than seven years of not seeing each other. Having recently lost her lover, Leonardo, an amateur cellist, the self-centered Charlotte, who prior to that has recused herself from the troubles of her family, accepts the invitation and arrives in pomp and circumstance. She initially seems overjoyed to see her daughter. However, when she learns that Helena, Eva’s paralyzed sister, is also present (and not in a hospital as she thought), her joy turns into dismay and horror. After seeing Helena in her dire state, Charlotte experiences a fit of rage and almost instant regret. An ominous feeling of presentiment overpowers her, as she declares “I’m to be put to shame. That’s the idea. A guilty conscience. Always a guilty conscience!” Were Charlotte to be put to shame, it would be at the hands of Eva.
Already, we can see parallels between Chopin’s A minor prelude and the predicament of the Andergast family. The tonal ambiguity of the prelude ties in perfectly with Charlotte’s visit—what will be the outcome of the reunion? And does Eva still love her mother, after she remained aloof for so long? Chopin’s “proud” character, as Charlotte declares, is mirrored by the pianist’s haughtiness and hubris. And most important, the premonition of impending judgment looms over both the A minor prelude and Charlotte’s visit. That premonition doesn’t merely tie the Chopin prelude to Autumn Sonata. It is the very essence of the both the prelude and the film.
Over the course of the film many parallels emerge between Eva and her mother. Two parallels between the two women have already been shown early on: both mourn a person close to them—Eva mourns her son Erik, who drowned before his fourth birthday, and Charlotte mourns Leonardo; and both play the Chopin prelude with a slightly unstable and swaying sense of rhythm—Charlotte as a professional, Eva as a keen amateur. Throughout the conversations between mother and daughter, we get to see that their respective fates are very much intertwined. Both declare that they are incapable of truly loving—Eva her husband and Charlotte her children, and both conceal their true emotions under a veneer of respectability (hence the A minor prelude).
But after Charlotte awakens shrieking from a nightmare and approaches her daughter, asking her whether she loves her, the moment of reckoning begins and a verdict is delivered. Unfortunately for Charlotte, her augury about being put to shame comes true. Eva accuses her mother of abdicating her maternal responsibilities, while still controlling every aspect of her life. Charlotte is accused of ignoring her daughter, as captured in a childhood depiction of Eva on the floor (this imagery will turn out to be very relevant), trying to no avail to speak to her mother, who is on a break from practicing the Emperor concerto. But the culmination of Eva’s accusations come when she ascribes Helena’s debilitating disease to the mother’s negligence. How are we as the audience supposed to react? Do we, by virtue of Charlotte’s flippant character, believe Eva? Or are we nevertheless inclined to believe Charlotte because of her glamor and charm? Whichever is the correct answer, it is undeniable that this thought had subconsciously lingered in the mind of the guilty mother. Otherwise, why would she be so mortified at learning that Helena was present in the house? The very notion of hidden guilt brings me right back to Chopin’s A minor prelude. Why hidden? Because Charlotte is initially reluctant to admit to it, much to her daughter’s disgust (“You’ve set up a sort of discount system with life”). And how does this tie in with Chopin? The figuration played in the left hand is most peculiar. The two voices in the left hand cross each other, making for an unclear sense of top and bottom. The outer voice leaps in large intervals, but the more chromatic and dissonant inner voice plays an ominous figuration characterized by the minor second interval. The bitterness of the minor second, heard throughout the prelude, which doesn’t rise to the foreground, but rather stays in its repressed place beneath, is a perfect analogy to Charlotte’s suppressed guilt, which can only be suppressed for so long (in the words of her daughter, “but one day you’ll see that your agreement is one-sided. You’ll discover that you’re carrying guilt, just like everyone else”). And that is where Charlotte reaches her tipping point, where she pleads forgiveness from her daughter, and seeks to learn the ways of life from her. Eva, in an apparent change in attitude from the beginning of the film, does not capitulate as her mother expects her to. And how powerful the symbolism is of the mother sitting on the floor at that point, pleading for her daughter’s forgiveness! The tables have turned: the mother, who initially snubbed her daughter who was on the floor, because she didn’t want to be bothered during a practice break, is on the floor herself in tears, begging for mercy. In fact, did Eva, when she invited her mother to visit, really want to reunite after seven years of absence, or did she have retribution in mind and heart? By not instantly responding to her mother’s pleas, Eva is clearly relishing her newly gained position of power.
Is Charlotte genuine in her repentance? Perhaps she is, as she was finally forced to come to terms with her own flawed ways and choices. But it doesn’t take her too long, apparently, to go back to her characteristic flippancy, as shown in the ensuing upbeat and humorous scene on the train, in her confessions to her agent and implied lover, Paul. But although the flippancy remains, we can assume that Charlotte has left her daughter’s house as a different person from when she came.
As Charlotte rightly says, there is no respite in Chopin’s A minor prelude. The composer is harsh and unsparing in his delivery of the verdict. The prelude comes to a tragic conclusion, which I don’t think is resolved in the following mirthful G major prelude. Just like the A minor prelude doesn’t continue the same line of thought as the C major prelude, the G major prelude paints an entirely different picture from what came before it. Even as we revel in the third prelude’s cheerfulness, the A minor prelude still remains an unhealed wound, and even if other preludes in minor are dark and lugubrious in nature, no other prelude in the cycle brings with it the same aura of verdict and judgment. Hence, Chopin tells us that we are not to expect the affliction to be resolved.
And here is where Bergman steps into the picture: immediately after Charlotte’s departure, Eva begins to feel pangs of guilt herself, thinking that she “drove her mother away,” It seems like Eva has at last heeded to her mother’s pleas. In this masterly scene, Bergman returns to the imagery of the very beginning of the film, with Eva at her desk writing a letter to her mother. In reaching out to her mother, Eva is actually fulfilling maternal duties towards her own mother, showing her the ways of humility and affection. She renounces her formerly professed hatred towards her mother, and instead opens the door to possible reconciliation, saying “it can’t be too late.” So is the final verdict actually final? In Chopin’s A minor prelude, evidently yes. The case is closed, and Chopin moves on to develop different musical ideas. And when we see Eva accusing her mother of being the root cause of Helena’s crippling illness, we think that Autumn Sonata will end with a similar conclusion. But here, Bergman diverges from Chopin, by raising the possibility of reconciliation between mother and daughter. As I said at the beginning, part of my admiration for Bergman stems from how bravely he handled the same subjects that have been central to great writers such as Chekhov, Faulkner, and Waugh. In this film, he deals with the same subject that Chopin dealt with. But whereas Chopin was proud, harsh, and unforgiving, Bergman, in the conclusion to Autumn Sonata, subtly underlines his difference from a composer so central to his work.