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Terrence Malick's 'Tree of Life': The classical music factor

July 5, 2011 | 11:28 am

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In an early scene in "The Tree of Life," the new movie by Terrence Malick, an authoritarian patriarch played by Brad Pitt disrupts a family dinner to instruct his three young sons in the appreciation of classical music.

Before their inexpressive faces, he brandishes an album cover of Brahms' Fourth Symphony, performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Pitt's character rather obnoxiously conducts along to the recording, which has been playing throughout the meal, and exhorts his boys to open their ears to Brahms' majestic chords.

Classical music clearly plays an important role in this 1950s suburban Texas household, as it does in "The Tree of Life."

In each of his five feature films to date, Malick has used classical music as his principal soundtrack. "The Tree of Life" features selections and snippets from more than 30 individual pieces -- including works by Brahms, Mahler, Bach, Górecki and Holst. They are all woven together seamlessly with the help of some original music by Alexandre Desplat.

A movie that envelops the intimate story of a family between the birth and death of the universe, "The Tree of Life" is a cosmic experience that resists easy narrative summary. The film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May but has polarized critics and audiences. At its core, the movie focuses on the conflict between the natural and the spiritual worlds, which is to say that it pits the seen versus the unseen.

Malick's choices of music stand in for the unseen in this thematic equation, though not always in obvious ways. The media-shy filmmaker is said to be a classical-music buff, along with being a birdwatcher and a hiking enthusiast. His soundtrack selections for "The Tree of Life" could spawn a lengthy essay on their own. Here are a handful of key pieces that provide the movie with some of its most musically inspired and memorable moments ...

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Treeoflife6"Vltava" (The Moldau) from "Má vlast" by Bedřich Smetana.

The Czech composer's most famous piece is a rousing symphonic homage to the Vltava river. Smetana's "Moldau" evokes the trickling origins of the Czech river, following its course through dramatic rapids and its majestic climax as it pours into the Elbe. In "The Tree of Life," the piece is used to score the sequence showing young Jack (Hunter McCracken) at play with his brothers in their Texas neighborhood. The music underscores the pure, natural innocence of childhood as well as the unstoppable momentum of life. (The piece was also featured prominently in the trailer for "The Tree of Life.")

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Treeoflife5 "Lacrimosa" from "Requiem for My Friend" by Zbigniew Preisner.

The Polish composer is best known for his film music, and "Requiem" was written as a farewell to his frequent collaborator, the late movie director Krzysztof Kieślowski. The "Lacrimosa" is featured prominently in the "The Tree of Life's" most talked-about sequence -- the birth of the universe. Malick's depiction is a visually impressive series of galactic explosions and roiling nebulae. That the director chose a requiem to score the sequence shows just how closely he associates birth and death. It should also be noted that Malick sees no apparent contradiction in using overtly religious music for a sequence involving the big bang and the beginnings of cellular life.

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Treeoflife4 "Toccata and Fugue" by J.S. Bach.

In "The Tree of Life," the Pitt character says that he once aspired to become a musician and is shown in several scenes playing classical music on the organ and the piano. (His failed music career is one of a number of disappointments in his life, and is perhaps the cause of his overly strict behavior toward his sons.) One of the pieces he plays is Bach's "Toccata and Fugue," a work for organ that is both spiritual in nature and ruthlessly disciplined in construction -- an apt summation of the Pitt character.

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Treeoflife7 "Agnus Dei" from "Requiem" by Hector Berlioz.

Without giving too much away, "The Tree of Life" culminates in an extended sequence featuring an older Jack (Sean Penn) wandering through the wilderness of an ecumenical afterlife. Once again, Malick has  chosen a piece of religious music to score a secular evocation of the universe. Some critics have labeled the movie as a Christian film, but this scene (and its music) suggests that Malick's view of the universe is too broad to be limited to just one faith. God is everywhere in the music but is nowhere to be found on screen.

RELATED:

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Critic's Notebook: 'Shutter Island' as a new-music haven

John Adams lends his music to 'I Am Love,' starring Tilda Swinton

-- David Ng

Photos: Scenes from "The Tree of Life," with Brad Pitt and Laramie Eppler (top), and Pitt with Hunter McCracken (bottom). Credit: Fox Searchlight


 
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