Throughout this post, I'm grateful for information from other bloggers - OperaChic and All Things Shining - pointed at by the LA Times. The links are, where possible, to the actual recordings used in the film.
As Malick's film may be said to consider love, loss and memory in the epic context of the life-span of the Earth, there is clearly scope for music that does more than underpin action. Indeed, much of the music reflects on the one hand the viscera & wonder of the natural world and on the other the aspiration towards something spiritual or at least, something beyond life, something noumenal. An early example of the latter is John Taverner's Funeral Canticle, choral music rocking back and forth like a pendulum, apparently unable to come to rest. This underpins an early dramatic event that sets in motion the meditative, nostalgic content of the bulk of the film. Despite the title of the piece it's not expressly mournful or soulful music. Rather it is music that enables rumination, supporting the imagination and the extension of thought.
It's a surprising volte face then that a subsequent birth-of-galaxy sequence should be underscored by a sung version of the liturgy, Zbigniew Preisner's setting of the Lachrymosa from the Requiem Mass. We can deduce then that this is part of Malick's intent for the film, a continual juxtaposition of the natural and the supernatural, just as the opening voiceover suggests
There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace.This is probably confirmed with the use of Gustav Holst's Hymn to Dionysus, again a work with Bacchanalian title and text at odds with the visual temperament of the graceful mother watching over the children's infancy. I found it as well to remember that Holst brings his own Planets Suite to a close with the similarly upper-voice choral music of Neptune, using the same sound world (no text) for his interplanetary vision. Holy or savage text, life beginning or ending, the sonority of choice appears to be choral.
Nonetheless, one can see the inherent contradiction. To make my point, see the music of a subsequent scene, a moment of unequivocal theological content. The frustrated musician father, played by Brad Pitt, plays the organ during a service at his church watched (with equivocal interest) by his son. The music is the hackneyed Toccata and Fugue attributed to J.S. Bach, BWV 565. It immediately put me in mind of this children's animation from the 1970s, where it underscores a title sequence taking in the same gargantuan span as Malick (but in a considerably shorter 90 seconds!):
But then I like the interesting decision to follow this with more Bach - the E Flat Minor fugue from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 853 as the boy plays on in the church which his father has left. The didact has gone and the boy is free to make of the building what he will. Similarly the gothic portentousness of the D Minor Toccata and Fugue is replaced by a more intimate, fluid and interrogative piece. It is also - in E Flat Minor - a semitone above the D minor of the organ piece and so, at a crude-but-effective level, is an enlightened step up from the music that has gone before.
The Bach is not the only music brandished by the father. During a meal he breaks off from the table to involve himself more fully in the climax to the 4th Symphony by Johannes Brahms. This is a particularly rich episode in the film. For a start the music itself is an extremely turbulent cascade of variations, a notable orchestral outcry from a composer one associates with classical restraint. Secondly, Brad Pitt's father makes a point of naming the conductor, Arturo Toscanini (the first of two occasions on which he is invoked). Toscanini is arguably the most notorious autodidact in the history of conducting, a man who demanded unquestioning fealty from his musicians, bullying them into performing as he wanted. Is the father listening to the music? Or is he listening to the expression of a condutor, through the music, whose approach to claiming what he wants in life is attractive? (It's also interesting that Brahms' music is used at a similar point in the development of the overbearing father-son relationship in PT Anderson's There Will Be Blood).
I suspect the use of Brahms in these period sequences has something to do with the central European sound that migrated across the Atlantic towards the end of the 19th century. It's the sound of the roots of America. One of the most powerful interludes in the film is that piece used also in the trailer, Vlatava from Bedrich Smetana's Ma Vlast.
Noble and proud, the music is nonetheless wistful, just like the character of memory in which the bulk of the film is couched. The fluid running flute is also a well-considered as a sonic counterpart to the dynamic steadicam filming and restless cutting. Additionally, the music of the most famous of European ex-pats, Gustav Mahler, finds its way into the the film (in an extract of his 1st Symphony), though this unsurprising context in which to find a composer who declared that 'the symphony should be like the world - it must contain everything'.
So there's a bracket of composers that are consonant with the conflicted nostalgia of the film. There is also music that deals with the mysterious, evocative nature of the film too - we have already come across the Preisner and can also consider the use of Henryk Gorecki's 3rd Symphony (Movement 2, Lento e Largo) in this bracket. What I found most interesting is the music that seems to issue as if from Malick himself.
Hector Berlioz was a rather extreme composer, writing uncompromising music for impractical resources in the middle of the 19th century. He is part of the line of artists like William Blake before him and indeed Malick after him, who pursue their ideas stubbornly in the face of derision. Berlioz's setting of the Requiem is a case in point, an outrageous work where performers would have outnumbered the audience in a complete performance. It is the conciliatory close of Berlioz's Requiem that Malick uses to underscore the visionary denoument of the movie. Straight away the music is unearthly, using woodwind at the outer reaches of their ranges, the alpha and omega of sonorities, creating a surreal doorway to the peace beyond after the sturm and drang before it (as the images do in this point in the film). This is not the only use of Berlioz in the film either, though I can't remember exactly where earlier extract of the Requiem (the cowed, paranoid Offertorium) and the youthful, heroic tone poem for solo viola Harold In Italy occur. It certainly seems that Malick found a musico-rhetorical counterpart to his filmmaking in the work of this composer.