Say what you will about Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (full disclosure #1: I place myself in the enthusiast camp), but the music rivals that of any film—ever. Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, puts it best: “Malick’s classical selections span the entire spectrum of human emotion, from the darkest regions to the most luminous.”

The score’s breadth mirrors the film’s expansive scope. It traverses the frontiers of Western music, from Baroque masters François Couperin (1668-1733) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) to contemporary composers such as John Tavener (1944-) and Tibor Szemzö (1955-). Its various moods and textures infuse the film with life, elevating it to an exalted realm.

Several pieces stand out, not because of the music alone but due to their treatment. The runner-up goes to Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony (full disclosure #2: I’m a Mahlerphile), where the calm yet unsettling opening passage of the first movement figures in several uncompromisingly tragic scenes involving the deaths of children.

But the most utterly transcendent moment takes place during the cosmic sequence of the film’s opening half. Malick sets a particularly climactic scene against the backdrop of a re-mixed version of the Lacrimosa theme from Zbigniew Preisner’s Requiem for my friend (1998). It is an achingly sorrowful piece; its pristine arrangement, led by a breathtaking soprano, evokes a scene both majestic and woeful. As the cosmos take shape, it makes one feel simultaneously insignificant and sublime, desolate and awestruck.

Whether or not you have already seen The Tree of Life, listen to Preisner’s haunting work, and then watch (or re-watch) the film. (While you’re at it, just listen to all the pieces featured in the film—most of which, unfortunately, do not appear on the actual soundtrack.) Whatever meaning you take away from this stunning work, the music surely amplifies it.

Editor’s Note: These are the two Lacrimosa movements that appear in Preisner’s Requiem for my friend. The version that appears in the film is not yet available.

“Lacrimosa—Day of Tears”




Sam Kerbel

Sam Kerbel is an assistant editor at Guernica.

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