For a heathen like me, films with religious overtones are usually best when played for their camp entertainment value, a la THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Something where the spectacle overwhelms anything overtly pious. Personal religious stories tend to come off as preachy and make my skin crawl. So why do I love THE SONG OF BERNADETTE so much?
It all begins with Jennifer Jones’ affecting, Oscar-winning performance. Jones (in her film debut) stars as a young peasant girl who has a vision of a “beautiful lady” in a city dump at Lourdes. Her visions make her the ridicule of the town until a spring, whose waters have healing powers, miraculously appears at the site.
Based on Franz Werfel’s bestselling novel, the 1943 film gave faith to audiences everywhere at a time when the surrounding war had people questioning their beliefs. Though the film is long and verges on that dreadful word—”important”—I totally buy Jones’ wide-eyed innocence. But what makes the film and Jones’ performance soar on the wings of faith is Alfred Newman‘s heavenly score.
Werfel originally recommended his friend Igor Stravinsky to compose the score. With producer Darryl Zanuck away at war and unable to veto the idea, Newman, who was head of the 20th Century Fox music department, let the legendary composer write the score. The music was rejected but Stravinsky later turned his own “Apparition of the Virgin” music into the middle movement of his Symphony in Three Movements.
Newman’s simple theme for Bernadette consists of four ascending notes which, according to Jon Burlingame in his commentary for the DVD, is “as if she’s gazing toward heaven.” And that four-note theme is the basis for one of the most moving cues in all film music—Bernadette’s first vision.
“My first reaction to the scene,” Newman said, “was to ‘hear’ it in terms of the great religious experiences that had previously been interpreted by Wagner in his Grail music and Schubert in his ‘Ave Maria,’ which is a terrifying standard to have to approach. I first wrote for the scene in this vein but I wasn’t happy with anything I did. It then occurred to me that I was wrong in thinking of the scene as a revelation of the Virgin Mary. I read back over Werfel’s book and found that Bernadette had never claimed to have seen anything other than a ‘beautiful lady.’
“I now wrote music I thought would describe this extraordinary experience of a young girl who was neither sophisticated enough nor knowledgeable enough to evaluate it as anything more than a lovely vision. With this in mind, I thought the music should not be pious or austere or even mystical, or suggest that the girl was on the first step to sainthood. She was at that point simply an innocent, pure-minded peasant girl, and I took my musical cues from the little gusts of wind and the rustling bushes that accompanied the vision, letting it all grow into a swelling harmony that would express the girl’s emotional reaction. And it was important that it express her reaction, not ours.”
Using flutes to suggest the breeze, oboes for the birds, and strings for the rustling bushes, Newman paints a tone poem of nature until the violins and chorus ascend, the basses descend, and the trumpets herald the appearance of the “lady.” As Newman stated, “The [lady’s] theme was fragile and yet loaded with dynamite.”
THE SONG OF BERNADETTE was the second soundtrack to be commercially recorded (on a 4-disc 78 rpm Decca release), following Miklos Rozsa’s THE JUNGLE BOOK in 1942.
To borrow from Newman’s own words, this score is “dynamite.” And no doubt this scene won Newman his richly-deserved Oscar. As the title card says, “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.