In The Song of Bernadette, Jennifer Jones stars in her film debut as Bernadette Soubirous, 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 miraculously appears whose waters have healing powers. Based on Franz Werfel’s bestselling novel, the film gave hope to audiences everywhere at a time when the surrounding war had people questioning their beliefs.
Jones’ wide-eyed innocence is ably supported by the always excellent Anne Revere as her mother and the imperious Gladys Cooper as a nun who doesn’t believe Bernadette because she hasn’t “suffered enough.” But what makes this film truly soar on the wings of faith, in addition to Jones’s performance, is Alfred Newman’s heavenly score.
There is no better example of the legendary “Newman strings” than in this score. Coupled with an angelic women’s chorus for the apparition scenes, as the title card says, “for those who believe, no explanation is necessary.”
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 Stravinsky compose 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.
Bernadette’s theme consists of four ascending notes which, according to Jon Burlingame in his commentary for the DVD, is “as if she’s gazing toward heaven.” The tender melody in 3/4 time for Antoine (William Eythe) and Bernadette speaks their unspoken affection for each other. Newman employs the same melody later in the film as the Dean (Charles Bickford) warms up to Bernadette’s story.
Without a doubt, the scene that probably won Newman the Oscar is Bernadette’s first vision. As Newman once stated:
“My first reaction to the scene 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.”
With the use of flutes to suggest the breeze, oboes for the birds, and strings for the rustling bushes, Newman paints an orchestra of nature until the violins and chorus ascend while the basses descend–as if the heavens were parting–and the trumpets herald the appearance of the “lady.” As Newman stated, “The theme was fragile and yet loaded with dynamite.”
Film Music Notes stated that though the “score offers nothing original to film music, it vitalizes and enriches the story and adds to its mystic and inspirational appeal and value.” Sigmund Speath, in the same magazine, wrote: “Newman’s music has a consistently ehtereal, mystic glamour, conveying a true sincerity of religious feeling.”
The Song of Bernadette was the second soundtrack to be commercially recorded (on an 4-disc 78 rpm Decca release), following Miklos Rozsa’s The Jungle Book in 1942.
In a career that spanned over thirty-five years and countless classic scores, The Song of Bernadette remains Alfred Newman’s crowning achievement and heavenly music indeed.