Among the many snatches of classical music Terrence Malick employs in The Tree of Life is a selection from the evocative opening of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. It’s used, if I remember correctly, twice in the film to underscore scenes of death: the family’s devastated reaction to the demise of one of Jack’s brothers; and later, the death that Jack witnesses of a child in the swimming pool. In Malick’s hands, that Mahler musical quote acquires a foreboding dimension, suggesting Jack’s growing spiritual doubt.
Though Malick’s style in his previous films has often suggested transcendentalist leanings in the way he views the world, the director’s latest vision suggests, perhaps more directly than ever before, an agnostic bent to go along with his obsessions with nature and man’s place in the world. If we’re to take Jack (played by Hunter McCracken as a teenager and Sean Penn as an adult) to be Malick’s proxy in this film, then The Tree of Life suggests that Malick truly wants to believe in the God he’s raised to believe in since childhood, but that he’s experienced too much in his life for his belief to be as unconditional as he wishes. What’s the point of being good, young Jack asks out loud at one point, if there’s no god to watch over him?
In some ways, the music of Gustav Mahler is appropriate for the kind of contemplation Malick aims to evoke in The Tree of Life. But to my mind, there’s another composer whose music Malick doesn’t use, but whose work more closely aligns to the church-like feeling of this film: that of one of Mahler’s contemporaries, Anton Bruckner. Whereas Mahler often laid out his struggles right on the surface, to the point where some might find his music impossibly overwrought, Bruckner—in his symphonies, in particular—often finds more serene, if sometimes no less anguished, expressions of his musical quests for God.
Starting tonight, the Cleveland Orchestra comes into town with its music director, Franz Welser-Möst, to present a series of four concerts featuring the music of both Bruckner and John Adams, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. For those who have seen The Tree of Life and aren’t familiar with Bruckner’s music, this may well be the perfect time to finally acquaint yourself with his work.
Anton Bruckner was born in 1824 in humble surroundings, in a small village in Austria. At an early age, he took to the organ and, after his father died when he was 13, he was sent to an Augustinian monastery in St. Florian, where he would later become its church organist. For the most part, he lived a fairly simple and humble life—a fact that, fascinatingly, often goes against the kinds of tempestuous emotions he expresses in his music.
The first thing one might notice about Bruckner’s symphonies is that, with the exception of the unfinished Ninth, all of them are basically the same in their structures. Bruckner wasn’t one to depart heavily from the classical symphonic form the way someone like Mahler frequently did in his symphonies; all of Bruckner’s symphonies follow the typical four-movement structure of fast-slow-medium-fast (though he does deviate from this in the original version of his Second Symphony and in his Eighth and Ninth, reversing the order of the inner movements in all three, in a move that echoes Beethoven’s in his own Ninth Symphony). Even the way he structures individual movements remains more or less constant symphony by symphony, to the point of where if you’ve heard one, you’d probably be able to figure out how they all will progress.
Bruckner’s musical style has some consistent signatures, too. Misty string tremolos are prominent throughout his works (usually his symphonies open with quiet string tremolos in another tribute to Beethoven’s Ninth), as are grand brass fanfares. His language also tends to bold, disruptive changes of key, pauses to denote sections, and unabashed extremes of volume, sometimes gradually achieved, sometimes sudden.
But while each of Bruckner’s symphonies may share common musical and structural characteristics, that doesn’t mean he wrote the same symphony nine times, as some have often claimed about his work. The cathedral may look the same on the outside, but inside there are all sorts of variations, work by work.
Take the four symphonies Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra are performing, the Fifth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Symphonies. The Fifth is perhaps Bruckner’s most heroic in character, not only in its themes, but in the ways those themes are developed; its finale, in particular, is some kind of master class in counterpoint, featuring all sorts of fugues and double fugues on its way to a majestic brass-laden finish. By contrast, the Seventh is more lyrical and introspective, with a central second-movement Adagio that contrasts mournful melancholy with moments of soaring beauty (Bruckner intended the movement to be a tribute to one of his idols, Richard Wagner, who was near death at the time).
His Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, however, are more deeply troubled works than those earlier two. Both begin in minor keys and both are chock full of dissonant, modern-sounding harmonies unlike anything he had quite imagined in his previous symphonies. (The Scherzo of the Ninth is particularly noteworthy in that regard, especially in its unusually dark and frightening intensity.) Which is not to say they’re all doom and gloom; their respective Adagios offer some respite from the surrounding anguish, though the Adagio of the Ninth—with the sobbing strings of its opening bars to be later echoed by Mahler in the opening of the concluding Adagio of his Ninth—puts up more of a struggle before reaching its profoundly peaceful conclusion.
It’s Bruckner’s adagios, most of all, that reveal a certain kinship with Malick; they’re very much the heart of all of his symphonic works. In those sublime slow movements, he strips away the sound and fury of his outer movements and leaves behind a purified expression of his spiritual core: contemplative, questioning, full of grave doubts and great hopes, all expressed in a sturdy cathedral-like structure that suggests a humble man trying to communicate with God. That is very much how I, at least, view The Tree of Life: as Malick’s own search for a great deity—not without uncertainties, but nevertheless in awe of the sheer immensity of the world around him. The film may well be the closest I’ve seen to a cinematic equivalent of a Brucknerian adagio, at least in feeling.
The Cleveland Orchestra, one of the most highly esteemed ensembles in the world, appears in their inaugural Lincoln Center residency. Music director and conductor Franz Welser-Möst freshly reimagines Anton Bruckner’s timeless symphonies, illuminating Bruckner’s powerful compositions with modern works by John Adams. For more information on “The Cleveland Orchestra: Bruckner: (R)evolution” (July 13 – 17), click here.