When the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman died, on July 30 2007, I was at the Universidad del Cine in Buenos Aires. It was a cold day, and strange: we had lost the director Michelangelo Antonioni, too. Some of my fellow students and I smoked cigarettes outside. I thought of the character of the Knight in Bergman’s film “The Seventh Seal,” and Giuliana, from Antonioni’s “Red Desert,” walking among the fabrics, and wondered: what would their versions of the afterlife be like?
Unlike Bergman, I didn’t learn about classical music at a young age. But like him, I would later marry someone who could teach me all about it. Bergman’s fourth wife, Käbi Laretei, was a writer and classical pianist. The composer Jüri Reinvere was close friends with both of them and made his way to artistic maturity as a member of their inner circle. Nine years after Bergman’s death, on a hot September day in Berlin, we met up with him to talk about film, music, and mentorship.
VAN: Käbi Laretei was an important mentor for you. Is it true that you originally approached her by writing a letter?
Jüri Reinvere: The very first thing was, I was studying in Warsaw, after I had left Estonia. I was 18 years old. Ingmar’s autobiography Laterna Magica came out, in Polish I think, and I read it—I had also seen some of his films. And because it was around the time of the Glasnost, Käbi’s book En Bit Jord [A Little Bit of Earth] came out in Estonia, and I was amazed.
Then I read an interview in a newspaper somewhere, and I was like, Wow, this is a woman I have to meet! I could learn so much from her. Months later I moved to Finland, and had a friend with her phone number, and I called her. I said, “I would be very happy if I could come and meet you in Stockholm.” So I did. It developed quickly into a very profound friendship, mentorship, many things at once.
What impressed you so much about that interview?
It’s hard to put it into one word, because it had to do with an entire way of living life and being an artist. And also obviously just her experience of Ingmar’s world. Which was still very active. At this point, in 1995, Ingmar’s last wife Ingrid had died, and his friendship with Käbi reignited in a profound way. Ingmar was very interested in music, and she was the one who had brought it into his life. So they had this old-fashioned friendship for the last 15 years of their lives which was very intense. A little bit like in “Saraband,” where the former spouses come close together in their elderly days. I see their story all over again in the film.
So after you met, what happened next?
We met in Stockholm and I was kind of unsure of myself. She asked me, “What can I help you with?” and I said, “I don’t know yet.” So she laughed and said, “I think I have a good idea of what you might need. But anyway, you’re a pianist, so we can play piano, do kind of piano lessons.” It very quickly developed into a friendship. I lived between Helsinki and Stockholm for 15 years and every free weekend, or days I had off, I stayed at their place. During the summertime I often visited the island of Fårö, where Ingmar lived. I would stay at Dämba, at his estate, opposite his cinema, always for a few weeks at a time. I was part of Käbi’s extended family. It’s hard to describe. I often ask myself how I’d describe my relationship to them, because it was so many different things at once. They influenced me more than my actual composition teachers.
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How did this influence manifest itself in your work?
I’ve recently started writing operas, and I see clear similarities in the topics that are important to me. About seeing life through the theology of the everyday, about observing one single character who is going through some sort of life-changing process. Then, I think I’m reaching for the same level of honesty as they did: an honesty that is not cynical or ironic, but that’s also not sentimental—that’s very important to me.
I had also started writing my own texts at the same time as I was in intense contact with them. I would fax things for the radio program I was working on to Käbi, and she would correct them and tell me what I needed to change: everything that was unnecessary, and everything that was sentimental.
Any work in particular?
You can definitely see it in my larger operas. With “Peer Gynt,” the story was the first thing of Ingmar’s I had ever seen live: at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, in the mid-1990s. I was thinking of him often when I was writing it. I was thinking of what artistic solutions he would have accepted, and what he wouldn’t have. I wouldn’t have been able to do it as a total ego trip with modern theater-style provocations, for instance destroying Ibsen’s original ideas, or trying to reinforce my supremacy over the theater in the times of Ibsen; which might have made it really cool for some people. I don’t think of myself as a Bergman-esque artist, but the influence is definitely there: in what paths I didn’t allow myself to take.
Käbi had a major impact on the way Bergman thought about music in his films, didn’t she?
It’s not only Käbi. Behind her, there was another person, a woman who had a powerful impact on both of their lives. She was a private piano teacher, who was Italian but lived in Stuttgart. She had been married to a violinist in the Berlin Philharmonic, but they divorced and so she gave piano lessons.
Käbi was the daughter of an Estonian minister, who later had become an ambassador. They had lived in Moscow at one point. So Käbi’s father was involved in diplomacy, and she grew up in that world, of spying and World War II. That meant her musical education had gaps. She could either play fantastically, or she could sort of fail for one night. She had teachers who were famous, but she didn’t have any good teachers. So her Italian agent recommended Maria-Luisa Strub-Moresco, and since Käbi had grown up as the child of diplomats, she spoke perfect French, English, and German.
At first she was skeptical, but her career wasn’t going so well, so she tried Maria-Luisa out. Maria-Luisa taught her how to play the piano, but also how to live, how to get divorced, how to find a new husband, everything [laughs]. Maria-Luisa was a character who was even more responsible than Käbi, I think, for Ingmar’s musical breakthrough. And her wisdom about life seeped into the films, too. Here they are in ‘66 [shows a picture]. Then Ingmar and Maria-Luisa became very good friends as well, so Ingmar persuaded Käbi to rent an apartment in Stuttgart, which they had until Maria-Luisa died.
In Bergman’s films you often see the same kind of characters reappearing in different guises. Does Maria-Luisa appear in any of them?
She appears in Ingmar’s books under the name of Andrea Corelli, and you come across her in all of his films. She was this wise old woman, like the grandmother in “Fanny and Alexander.” The grandmother in the film would be the perfect archetype for Maria-Luisa.
Later on, it seems to me, Bergman started designing his films around the music—where and when he wanted to use it.
Not only that, but he also explored the musician’s life. I watched “Autumn Sonata” again a while ago, and I thought, it is actually a film about Käbi, though she resisted that idea up until the very end. She used to say it’s a film about Ingmar himself, which is also true. There’s a very important moment where Ingrid Bergman is coming with all these yellow suitcases; Ingmar was very insistent that they had to be the yellow suitcases Käbi was traveling all around the world with. He was trying to recreate the life of a concert pianist as meticulously as he could. It wasn’t only about music, it was about being a musician.
He was incredibly interested in what music is about. How it’s constructed, and where the emotional content and the technical goals of a composer’s oeuvre meet. It was an enigma that he was trying to figure out. Since I was a composer, we played a little bit, and I would tell him, say, what Schumann was thinking in different places.
We had one discussion about a grand pause in one of Bach’s Fugues from the “Kunst der Fugue”: I thought it was there because what was happening was messy, and Bach wanted to put an end to the mess quickly. But Ingmar had a completely different opinion, he thought it was the ultimate goal of the piece. We were constantly talking about what a composer was or wasn’t thinking.
Did you talk with him a lot about music?
Yes, all the time. He used to visit Käbi at least once a week, and if I was there, the talking and playing was all about music: either Käbi or me was sitting behind the piano and showing Ingmar how the music is done.
How did he choose the music for his films?
I’m convinced that the music he chose for crucial scenes in his films was of great personal importance. He connected the pieces with important moments, or they had showed up at a particular time in his life. Once in a while, at unexpected moments, he could be quite open about that. He had been charged with tax evasion and chose to leave Sweden, because was facing the chance that he was going to be arrested and sent to prison for a long time. And at the time, in that state of mind, he heard the Schumann Piano Quintet, and he found consolation in it. This would be the piece which runs through “Fanny and Alexander.”
In “Saraband” there are these long talks about music. But the reason that he used one piece or another was that they had something to do with him. And in “Autumn Sonata” there’s a famous scene where the Chopin Prelude in E Minor is played twice, and I like to imagine that was something he had stored away from watching a piano lesson that Käbi took from Maria-Luisa at some point.
Did he go to many concerts?
All the time, and passionately. He also read passionately, but very slowly. Anyway, he needed live music, not just tapes or LPs. He was interested in new composers. He was at the concert hall all the time, but he was always the last to arrive and the first to leave.
So like most music critics. Do you think he found expression in music that he couldn’t in his films?
He often said that by putting music in his films, he thought it would describe much more than what he wanted to say with words. It would be more sincere and honest. That made a lot of sense to me.
I would also say, like a lot of people who actually came from the second half of the 19th century, he thought music was the most enigmatic and important form of art, and everything else was kind of secondary. I don’t agree, but it was his way of seeing the world.
He was born in Sweden 1918, which is the same year when my grandfather was born, and Sweden in 1918 was pretty similar to Germany around 1880: the cultures had the same kind of basic understanding of the world, the one we later find in Thomas Mann—the kind of people who would have a score of “Parsifal” open on their pianos. I mean, Thomas Mann once said he was jealous that he couldn’t write something as powerful as “Parsifal,” and I think that was pretty typical of his generation.
What’s your favorite musical scene in a Bergman film?
Difficult to say. He is such crucial teacher for me, so they are all important in some way. That scene in “Autumn Sonata” with the Chopin Prelude that we mentioned already says a lot—on many, many levels—about his thinking on music and being an artist. The main root of the scene is Maria-Luisa, plus you have all the great women in his life all together: Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Käbi, they were all there.
What was their relationship like in the last 10 to 15 years?
It was a very deep friendship, without the demands of marriage. They could cherish the kind of things that made them interested in each other in the first place. His love of music and Käbi’s unavailability were part of it, too. Since she wasn’t Swedish, there was no way for Ingmar to understand her completely.
They made telephone calls that lasted hours, talking about literature, music, politics, mutual friends, the theater, and so on. When I wasn’t in touch with Ingmar, Käbi told me what was going on. Also, Ingmar was Käbi’s first proofreader and her harshest critic. So the way he taught writing was passed on directly to me. Both of them encouraged me to start writing texts, because up until then, I was only composing music.
Do you miss them?
Yes. I mean, they both had this kind of philosophy that everything in life is temporary and you have to take advantage of it when it’s there. And so do I. At that point, I was aware that it was going to end, that they were both not going to live forever. I definitely miss Käbi’s energy, and her particular talent of getting you right back on your feet when you were down.
In 2005, when I moved in Berlin, as a kind-of farewell gift Käbi wrote a text for the liner notes of my first CD. It ends with a scene where I didn’t call her on an evening that I usually would have. And how she understood that I was ready to leave the nest. ¶
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