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In the beginning was music

19 February 2016

Justin Lewis-Anthony finds that creation and music are inextricably linked


Righteous? Russell Crowe at the Scottish premiere of Aronofsky’s Noah, 2014

Righteous? Russell Crowe at the Scottish premiere of Aronofsky’s Noah, 2014

WHEN God creates in Genesis, it is by the spoken word, whereas in popular culture, creation is more often accompanied, or enacted, by music.

C. S. Lewis has Aslan sing Narnia into being in The Magician’s Nephew (1955). In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (1977), the world is made by the music of the one Creator, Eru Ilúvatar, and angelic powers join in the theme.

In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the long pre-history of humanity is told in silence (at least, beyond the noises made by creatures on screen), until the ape-creatures meet the strange monolith that will propel them into the next evolutionary stage.

Kubrick underlines the importance of this encounter with the “Kyrie” from György Ligeti’s Requiem, which segues into the famous (and now almost proverbial) use of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. For Kubrick, it seems, the “creation” moment of his film (where humanity becomes humanity) requires music.

More recently, Terrence Malick’s experimental film The Tree of Life (2011) tells the story of the creation of the universe mapped on to the life of a family in the United States in the 20th century.

Some audiences found the cosmological sequences to be inexplicable — we cut from time to time to scenes of stars or dinosaurs — but Malick made his intentions clear by beginning the movie with a quotation from Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth? . . . When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

The 15-minute sequence has an absent-but-implied creator, the most wonderful special effects, and plenty of music: among other pieces, the “Lacrimosa” from Requiem For My Friend byZbigniew Preisner, and the “Agnus Dei” from Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts. It is curious how many of these film depictions of creation are accompanied by classical requiems.

Darren Aronofsky’s less high-brow film Noah (2014) also includes a creation, which includes Noah telling his children the story told him by his father. The Genesis structure (“In the beginning, there was nothing . . . the first day. . . ”) is mapped on to modern cosmology (“our world was born, our beautiful fragile home”), and evolution (“the waters teemed with life, great creatures of the deep that are no more…”). Aronofsky accompanies the narrative with a flickering fly-by of the changing world: a cosmological time-lapse.

The account of creation in Genesis can be understood as a work of art: a poem of praise and exhortation — praise to God the Creator, and exhortation to humankind to remember that fact. These other artistic works, whether made for “religious” reasons or not, seem to share in that endeavour.

Creation is awe-inspiring, it is evolutionary, it tells us who we are, and how we should behave; and the emotional insights of that identity seem best conveyed by music. If St Augustine did say: “He who sings prays twice,” perhaps we should add: “He who wishes to depict the creation needs good music.”


The Revd Dr Justin Lewis-Anthony is Associate Dean of Students at Virginia Theological Seminary. He is the author of You are the Messiah and I Should Know: Why leadership is a myth and probably a heresy (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2013).

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