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Jennifer Warnes: "Song of Bernadette"

10-13-2017 | By John Marks | Issue 93

John Marks of The Tannhauser Gate favors us with some reflections upon Bernadettes, Leonard Cohen of remarkable memory, the exceptional Jennifer Warnes, and a certain haunting song. This is a bracing little essay, taking across time and space to one of the great tandems of recent decades:  Cohen and Warnes.

He's gone now, to my heart's great sorrow, and she remains, a very interesting presence, songwriter, and singer in her own right. (Having met her a couple of times, I can attest to her presence quite surely.) 

I learned a lot from John's article; read on, and you can too.

Dr. David W. Robinson, Ye Olde Editor

Jennifer Warnes:  "Song of Bernadette"

Gustav Mahler and his wife Alma (née Schindler) had a marriage that was often troubled. Mahler started out on the wrong foot by insisting that his musically-talented (and, much younger) fiancée renounce her own ambitions to write serious music. (Alma had already composed some songs, and had worked on some instrumental music, as well as an opera sketch). Years later, a hammer-blow of fate befell Gustav and Alma with the death of their five-year old daughter Maria Anna. That shock was followed by the hammer-blow of Gustav's diagnosis with the heart defect that eventually caused his early death.

Mahler only later discovered that, reeling from her daughter's death (and, doubtless, also reeling from Mahler's determination to isolate himself, so he could put on paper all the music that was within him, before it was too late), Alma had taken up romantically (and sexually) with a young architecture student named Walter Gropius.

For what all of that has to do with Jennifer Warnes, you will have to read on to find out.

Gropius, if that name did not ring a bell, went on to found the Bauhaus. Upon Mahler's death, Alma and Gropius did not marry at once; however, they later did. They had a daughter Manon, whose death was memorialized in Alban Berg's Violin Concerto "To the memory of an angel." To fill in the gaps: after Gustav's death, Alma was also romantically linked (as they say), to artist Oscar Kokoschka (during an interlude between first bedding and eventually marrying Gropius); and, to the writer Franz Werfel (whom she also, in the fullness of time, married).

Satirist Tom Lehrer wrote a song about Alma's love life. I think it is a cruel cheap shot. (But, did Lehrer ever write anything that was not a cheap shot?) Therefore, I decline to link to it. (But if you need to hear it, I am sure that you can find it.)

In among dumping Kokoschka (who appears to have been a very sick puppy) and marrying and eventually divorcing Gropius, Alma took up with a to-date-unsuccessful (and younger than she) writer, Franz Werfel. Werfel had a fascinating upbringing. He was born and raised Jewish; but he had, from his earliest years, a Catholic education. However, his Catholic education was under circumstances that allowed a Rabbi to come in to instruct the Jewish boys for their Bar Mitzvahs. Werfel's early experiences fostered his curiosity about religions, which led to his investigations into Theosophy, Islam, and Bahá'í; as well as his gaining an understanding of Christianity and Catholicism that would put many an average pew-sitter to shame. Werfel and Alma met through a mutual friend, and she set one of his poems to music.

Werfel's two noteworthy novels were a "docu-drama"-style novel about the Turkish genocide of Armenian Christians during the First World War (which was later banned by the Nazis), and a historical novel about the Occitan (and non-French speaking(!)) peasant girl and eventual Catholic saint Bernadeta Sobirós (Fr.: Bernadette Soubirous) (1844-1879): The Song of Bernadette. But it seems that Werfel needed all of, encouragement and guidance from Alma, and a good kick in the pants from historical circumstance, to become a best-selling writer.

On the run from the Nazis for his anti-Hitler satires, in 1938 Werfel and Alma ended up in France. But they did not try to leave France until after the closing of the borders in 1940. (That was after France fell, and, more importantly, when France began rounding up Jews and handing them over to the Nazis.) Well-wishers advised Werfel and Alma to hide out in the pilgrimage destination Lourdes. The couple was aided there by Catholic religious who worked at the shrine (moreover, a number of families in Lourdes took turns giving the hunted fugitives shelter). In gratitude, Werfel promised to write about Lourdes.

Published in America in 1941, the resulting historical fiction The Song of Bernadette spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list, and 13 weeks in the No. 1 spot. A movie was made that had some degree of lasting cultural impact. The film version racked up four Academy Awards in 1943, and three Golden Globes in 1944.

I will now hand the floor over to Jennifer Warnes' recollections, and to the lyrics she co-wrote with Leonard Cohen and Bill Elliot:

I was given the name Bernadette at birth. But my siblings preferred the name "Jennifer," so my name was changed one week later. In 1979, on tour in the south of France with Leonard Cohen, I began writing a series of letters between the "Bernadette" I almost was, and "Jennifer"–two energies within me. One innocent, and the other, who had fallen for the world…. So the song arose in a bus near Lourdes. I was… thinking about the great Saint who held her ground so well, and was not swayed from what she knew to be true. But the song is also about my longing to return to a place that was more pure, honest and true. I still long for this; and I think others do too.

Song of Bernadette

There was a child named Bernadette
I heard the story long ago
She saw the Queen of Heaven once
And kept the vision in her soul;

No one believed what she had seen
No one believed what she heard
That there were sorrows to be healed
And mercy, mercy in this world.

So many hearts I find, broke like yours and mine
Torn by what we've done and can't undo
I just want to hold you, come on let me hold you
Like Bernadette would do.

We've been around, we fall, we fly
We mostly fall, we mostly run
And every now and then we try
To mend the damage that we've done;

Tonight, tonight I just can't rest
I've got this joy inside my breast
To think that I did not forget that child
That song of Bernadette.

So many hearts I find, broke like yours and mine
Torn by what we've done and can't undo;
I just want to hold you, won't let me hold you
Like Bernadette would do.
I just want to hold you, come on let me hold you
Like Bernadette would do.

© Sony/ATV Songs LLC et al., rights holders.
Reproduced under the Fair Use doctrine.

In his performance directions for the final movement of his fourth symphony, Gustav Mahler instructs the soprano soloist to sing "completely without parody." In much the same spirit, Jennifer Warnes and her co-writers Leonard Cohen and Bill Elliott wrote a song about the healing power of chaste, spiritual love – completely without parody.

Perhaps somewhere in Heaven, Gustav Mahler is taking it all in with a knowing, sad smile… .

Jennifer Warnes Song of Bernadette

What must be the definitive version of Warnes' "Song of Bernadette" is found on her album Famous Blue Raincoat. The link is to the 20th-Anniversary remastered 24-Kt. Gold CD (plus a free Amazon mp3, with the usual terms and conditions). That said, the early (1986) Attic Records CD version (which to my ears sounds great) can be had used on eBay for about $15.

In this regard, I can only think that Leonard Cohen's song of 1971  "Joan of Arc" (which is the duet he sings with Warnes on Famous Blue Raincoat), had to have inspired Warnes' 1979 "answer song," "Song of Bernardette."

One album, two instances of iconic French Catholic women. I wonder if anyone needs a PhD-in-Musicology topic?