Tree of Life: Meaning and Music

I have seen it, and I have decided that any attempt on my part to describe/analyze/or interpret the Terrence Malick film Tree of Life would devastate me. All I can say is that I highly recommend that you see the film. Just be warned; it’s not a typical film experience. As my brother-in-law has observed, “Tree of Life is a poem set to moving images.” Terrence Malick forces the viewer to confront film as a visual and aural medium. I was impressed, and I think changed, by Tree of Life. It is a bold and needed attempt at an artistic rendering of the world’s true meta-narrative. I can only hope that Tree of Life can become the 2001: A Space Odyssey of this generation. Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece presented his generation with a grand narrative about the nature of human existence and the evolution of mankind to a higher state, in spite of the lonely universe of nihilism that spits at us in our solitude. Malick presents us with an equally grand meta-narrative of human existence, but couldn’t be more different in his conclusions. There is no evolution of humankind to an enlightened moral state…only grace, longing, and beauty. There is God.

Kubrick gave us Nietzsche; Malick gives us Job. Kubrick gave us Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra; Malick gives us John Tavener’s Funeral Canticle. And in the end, there may be no better words to describe Tree of Life than those already spoken by Julian of Norwich, “…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Or perhaps T.S Eliot’s incorporation of this quote in a passage from”Little Gidding”, the fourth of his Four Quartets poems:

Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us—a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.

I must go no further, but would like to point out one aspect of the film that most intrigued me. The soundtrack resonates. It features works by François Couperin, Bach, Berlioz, Smetena, Mahler, Holst, Górecki, Tavener, and others, alongside original music by Alexandre Desplat.

If you don’t consider yourself a “classical” music connoisseur, Tree of Life may be a good place to start exploring. Music critic Alex Ross points out that, “Malick’s classical selections span the entire spectrum of human emotion, from the darkest regions to the most luminous.” I couldn’t agree more. Here is a list of over thirty of the pieces you will hear as you view Tree of Life. I have also included samples and a recent PBS interview about the film with Calvin College professor of English Roy Anker.

Tree of Life Official Movie Trailer

“Funeral Canticle”
Written by John Tavener and Mother Thekla
Performed by George Mosley, Paul Goodwin
and the Academy of Ancient Music

“Cosmic Beam Take 5”
Written and Performed by Francesco Lupica

“Symphony No. 1”
Written by Gustav Mahler
Performed by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Halász

“Morning Prayers”
Written by Giya Kancheli

“Faunophonia Balkanica”
Written, Performed and Produced by Arsenije Jovanovic

“Wind Pipes”
Written and Performed by Michael Baird

“Approaching”
Written, Performed and Produced by Arsenije Jovanovic

“Ta Há 1”
Written and Performed by Klaus Wiese

“Snapshot from the Island”
Written and Performed by Tibor Szemzo

“Lacrimosa 2”
Composed by Zbigniew Preisner
Performed by Elzbieta Towarnicka (soprano) and the Sinfonia Varsovia
and the Varsov Chamber Choir, conducted by Jacek Kaspszyk

“Troops Advance in Grass”
Written and Performed by Francesco Lupica and Lee Scott

“Ascending and Descending”
Written by David Hykes
Performed by David Hykes and The Harmonic Choir

“Resurrection in Hades”
Written by John Tavener and Mother Thekla
Performed by Joseph Jennings and the Chanticleer Choir and Chorus

“Berlioz: 7. Domine Jesu Christe [Requiem Op. 5 (Grande Messe des Morts)]”
Performed by Wandsworth School Boys Choir, London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony
Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis

“Siciliana Da Antiche Danze Ed Arie Suite III”
Written by Ottorino Respighi
Performed by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland Conducted by Rico Saccani

“Hymn to Dionysus”
Composed by Gustav Holst
Performed by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus

“My Country –Vltava (The Moldau)”
Composed by Bedrich Smetana
Performed by Vaclav Smetacek and
The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

“Brahms: 2. Andante moderato [Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98]”
Performed by Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan

“Symphony No. 3”
Written by Henryk Górecki
Performed by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit

“Pièces de clavecin, Book II 6e Ordre N°5:
Les Barricades Mistérieuses
Written by Francois Couperin (1668-1733)
Performed by Angela Hewitt

“J.S Bach: Fugue [Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565]”
Performed by Helmut Walcha

“The Well-Tempered Clavier”
Written by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performed by Jeno Jandó

“Pièces de clavecin, Book II 6e Ordre N°5:
Les Barricades Mistérieuses
Written by Francois Couperin
Performed by Hanan Townshend

“Hymn 87: Welcome Happy Morning”
Performed by Hanan Townshend

“Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition – Promenade – The Tuileries – Bydio (Piano Version)”
Performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy

“Schumann: 1. Allegro affettuoso [Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54]”
Performed by Martha Argerich, Gewandhausorchester, Leipzig, Riccardo Chailly

“Klangschalen 2”
Written and Performed by Klaus Wiese

“Eternal Pulse”
Written and Performed by Hanan Townshend

“After the Rain: Antiphon”
Written by Barry Guy
Performed by Richard Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia

“Harold in Italy”
Written by Hector Berlioz
Performed by the San Diego Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yoav Talmi

“Piano Sonata No.16 in C Major K. 545”
Composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Performed by Jim Lynch

“Siciliana Da Antiche Danze Ed Arie Suite III”
Written by Ottorino Respighi
Performed by Hanan Townshend

“Lacrimosa 2”
Written by Zbigniew Preisner
Performed by Hanan Townshend

“Berlioz: 10. Agnus Dei [Requiem, Op. 5 (Grande Messe des Morts)]”
Performed by Wandsworth School Boys Choir, London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony
Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis

“Sound Testament of Mount Athos”
Written, Performed and Produced by Arsenije Jovanovic

“Ma Maison”
Written, Performed and Produced by Arsenije Jovanovic
Courtesy of Arsenije Jovanovic

PBS Interview with Calvin College professor of English Roy Anker

Watch the full episode. See more Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.