Music flows through nearly every frame of Terrence Malick's darkly devotional new film The Tree of Life. The director is an avid classical listener — I was fortunate to meet him at the American Academy in Berlin in 2002 — and the soundtrack of his latest film features works of François Couperin, Bach, Berlioz, Smetena, Mahler, Holst, Górecki, Tavener, and others, alongside original cues by Alexandre Desplat. (Opera Chic has the complete list. Alas, no Wagner this time.) The Agnus Dei of the Berlioz Requiem accompanies the otherworldly climax, and chilling use is made of a passage from the first movement of Mahler's First Symphony. The most striking musical moment, though, involves the finale of the Brahms Fourth Symphony. The distant, troubled father played by Brad Pitt is a frustrated musician, a church organist turned engineer, and he has a habit of blaring classical records during family dinners. In one scene he gets up from the table to conduct along with the Brahms, waving the jacket of Toscanini's NBC Symphony LP for emphasis. The use of classical music as a signifier of emotional coldness is an all-too-familiar cinematic trope, but this episode goes rather deeper than that; we sense that the father's unhappiness is rooted in the abandonment of his early musical aspirations. In the scene immediately preceding this one, Smetena's Moldau (heard in the trailer) speaks of the joy of life lived fully, as the three young brothers cavort in the landscape around their Texan home. In other words, Malick's classical selections span the entire spectrum of human emotion, from the darkest regions to the most luminous.
By the way, Brahms's great motet "Warum?" is a setting of the anguished question from the Book of Job: "Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life to the bitter in soul?" The beginning of God's response serves as the epigraph to The Tree of Life: "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?" I've long had the feeling — entirely unsubstantiated by biographical evidence — that the finale of the Brahms Fourth is a representation of the same passage. I take up that idea in the last chapter of my book Listen to This.