The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music riddle: Why does “The Tree of Life” use Francois Couperin’s “Mysterious Barricades? What are the barricades? And what’s the mystery? Tell The Ear about the movie and the music. | July 26, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

I have longed loved and been fascinated by Francois Couperin’s composition “Les Barricades Mysterieuses” (below) or “The Mysterious Barricades.”

An excerpted movement from a longer suite, it’s a short piece (2-1/2 minutes or so) for keyboard – harpsichord originally, but often played effectively on the piano (at bottom).

To my ears, the work’s repetition seems almost Minimalist centuries before Minimalism became popular and commonplace.

And the work by Couperin (below) possesses an undeniable sense of mystery, of French sexy mystery – much like you also find in Debussy, Faure and even Ravel and Messiaen.

So I was pleased to see that it was used – not once, but several times — in Terrence Malick’s award-winning film “The Tree of Life” (below) that is still playing in cinemas.

Not that I liked the film.

Sure, I know it won the Golden Palm at Cannes.

And I know a lot of big name critics like it.

And I really loved the visuals (below) that often seemed like breath-taking shots from the Hubble Space Telescope. And I loved the music, so much of its classical and great, much of it mentioned in an earlier post:

Here’s a link to the list:

And I pretty much liked some elements of the plot, certain scenes and some of the characters played by Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.

But overall, as a whole, the movie struck me as pretentious, ponderous and insipid. Maybe it’s just too deep for me, even though I enjoy reading Proust and Wallace Stevens.

I know this much: When it comes to “The Tree of Life,” whatever the IT is, I didn’t get IT.

Still, I do like the music by Couperin.

But I would be interested in what readers and others have to say about what the enigmatic title of Couperin’s piece means.

What barricades?

And what mystery?

Or maybe it isn’t meant o make sense or have a specific reference. Maybe it is like Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, where we can’t be sure of what the enigma really is.

Anyway, what did you think of “The Tree of Life”?

Do you like Couperin’s “Les Barricades Mysterieuses”?

What do you think the “mystery” and the “barricades” are?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. I hadn’t heard this piece before watching The Tree of Life and was so taken with it that I searched the Internet and the long list of music at the end of the movie until I found it.

    The movie itself, I agree, seems very pretentious; apparently trying to attach cosmic significance to a single life experience, but looking at the other comments, I think I’m not alone in believing that the filmmakers seriously failed to pull it off, leaving the movie as rather disjoint and confused.

    That being said, the “cosmic” visuals and the family life scenes were very beautifully shot. I found one scene in particular to be so poignant that it was nearly worth sitting through the rest of the movie to see. It was when the boy was playing Mysterious Barricades outside on the guitar and his father was inside on the piano playing a simple accompaniment to the piece – although the boy couldn’t hear it.

    It’s especially poignant now that I know the name of the piece because the father had basically placed an emotional barricade between himself and his sons. I think he felt comfortable in his work environment and terribly insecure in the home, and that insecurity caused him to lash out at his sons, keeping them at a distance – though I doubt he or his sons understood why they could never connect.

    The father’s quiet accompaniment to his son’s playing spoke to me of his love for his son, but his inability to express it.

    Comment by Bob — June 19, 2020 @ 3:00 am

  2. […] Classical music riddle – The Well-Tempered EarJul 26, 2011 … By Jacob Stockinger I have longed loved and been fascinated by Francois Couperin’s composition “Les Barricades Mysterieuses” (below) or … […]

    Pingback by Mysterious barricades | Pixsimple — December 23, 2012 @ 11:20 am

  3. Having been born in 1950, I would say that the 50s in America was the most mysterious barricade of my life. (Not sure this is a correct translation of the French, let alone a musical interpretation.)

    The 50s were prosperous, relaxed, repressed, elitist, self-conscious, posturing, pompous, judgmental, and all overlaid with a facade of happiness and perfection.

    It was a decade of being taught the golden rule, but seeing it broken every day by most adults.

    I see it as a musical pun on the elusiveness of deep inner happiness caused by the “barricades” that we create ourselves.

    Comment by kris — April 14, 2012 @ 6:31 pm

    • Hi Kris,
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      Your response isn’t very historical in terms of the original Baroque music, but it holds a certain metaphorical fascination about it, especially in the context of being used as film score.
      It certainly is thought-provoking.
      Thank you of being so upfront.
      The 1950s certainly were NOT the all-is-wonderful era that many right-wingers want to mistakenly see it as.

      Comment by welltemperedear — April 15, 2012 @ 11:42 am

  4. Hi Jake –
    “The Tree of Life,” for me, was one of those truly moving, even magical, experiences at the movies, but I can’t quite say why. I think the soundtrack was certainly part of it, and as you point out, the beauty of the cinematography. In general, I’m a sucker for most art that plays on the loss of innocence, whether it’s Blake or another recent film that reminded me a bit of this one, Where the Wild Things Are.

    My major criticism is that it was too long; the trance had begun to fade before the film ended, giving me time to question whether or not there was even a big “IT” to “get.” Still, I left deeply satisfied, if a little perplexed.

    I wasn’t familiar with “Les Barricades Mysterieuses” before the movie, and will defer to Cheryl’s and your thoughts on the meaning of the title. To my ear, its “minimalist” nature and the playfulness of the false endings evoke youth and give it the feeling of carefree improvisation. Malick captured that perfectly in, arguably, the movie’s happiest father/son scene, when Brad Pitt, practicing the piece on the piano, is joined by his son on the guitar, who chimes in from outside on the front porch.

    That’s my armchair analysis!

    Comment by Brian H — July 26, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

    • Hi Brian,
      I agree with you about length. I also agree it has arresting parts. But the whole just didn’t cohere for me. It seemed overly ambitious and under-executed.
      Maybe it was the wrong day for me.
      As for your armchair analysis of the “Barricades,” it strikes me as on target and useful to the degree that it underscores exactly how the music is used, several times, in the film.
      As always, thanks for reading and replying.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 26, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

  5. BTW, I’ve always ADORED this piece…

    Comment by Cheryl Dring — July 26, 2011 @ 9:17 am

    • Me too.
      And whenever I try to play it, I find it much harder and trickier to do than it sounds.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 26, 2011 @ 9:51 am

  6. I believe ‘barricades’ refers to avoided cadences. Every time you think you’re going to cadence, the piece seems to bump into a wall and keep going, like those little wind-up toys we had as kids.

    Comment by Cheryl Dring — July 26, 2011 @ 9:16 am

    • Hi Cheryl,
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      I like that explanation a lot. It makes sense.
      And so does your comparison to wind-up toys.
      Also, the wind-up toy part connects with the notion of perpetual motion, which s fascinated composers and scientists alike in Couperin’s time.
      What about the possibility that sometimes mysteries are the answers, not the questions.
      Which might mean that Couperin just wanted to tease us and hook us — so French, n’est-ce pas?

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 26, 2011 @ 9:50 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,262 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,329,135 hits
%d bloggers like this: