Oslo Journal, Part VII


Editor’s Note: Last week, Jay Nordlinger attended the Oslo Freedom Forum, the annual human-rights conference held in the Norwegian capital. Today concludes his journal. The previous parts are at the following links: I, II, III, IV, V, and VI.

Today is the big day of the year here in Norway — certainly one of them. It’s May 17, the National Day, or Constitution Day. Norway is one big party: one big, colorful, star-spangled, or at least patriotic party. People dress in elegant folk garb. Marching bands play — and march, of course.

In fact, there is a parade of some three hours’ duration. The royal family smiles down on the paraders from the balcony of the palace.

The word for this pageant, I would say, is gay. That is a better word than “festive,” a better word than “merry” — “gay” is absolutely the mot juste.

And, of course, we don’t quite have it. I’m not one of those who scream, “They took the word from us!” Language, certainly English, is in a perpetual state of flux.

Still, sometimes “gay” is just right, and you have to fumble around for substitutes. (Incidentally, there was once a major golfer named Gay Brewer. A Masters champion, in fact.)

It is possible to enjoy other people’s patriotism. It is possible to be moved by it, too. I remember being on a National Review cruise, and attending a show put on by Filipino crew. At the end, they unfurled their flag and sang their national anthem. A woman behind me joined in on the song.

Again, moving. Patriotism can turn ugly, of course. But maybe we should call this “nationalism.” Several times, I have quoted Bill Buckley on the subject: “I’m as patriotic as anyone from sea to shining sea, but there’s not a molecule of nationalism in me.”

Yup. Anyway, Norwegian patriotism is a wonderful thing to experience, certainly of this variety, and on this day.

It’s so good to hear bands — to see and hear marching bands. Do we have them at home anymore? Mainly where football games are concerned, right? They used to be a staple of American life — a staple that Ives incorporated into his music.

Today, in Oslo, I hear The Washington Post. I’m talkin’ the Sousa march. I’m not talkin’ Katharine Graham, or Ben Bradlee. I also hear — my ears can hardly believe it — The Stripper. From a sweet little Norwegian marching band.

Do they know what they play? They must.

It’s kind of funny to see French horns in the bands. This instrument is hard enough to play sitting down on a stage; but to march with it . . .

Night after night, I sit in concert halls and hear the finest French hornists in all the world — the 1 percent of the 1 percent — flub. I brought this up in an interview once with Esa-Pekka Salonen, the conductor. Let me quote from my write-up:

When a student, Salonen studied the French horn, a notoriously difficult instrument. He says that, compared with the French horn, the trumpet, trombone, and other brass instruments are “like nothing.” I say that, as a critic, I tend to cut horn players a lot of slack — maybe too much — because they are virtually destined to flub. “You are right to cut them slack,” says Salonen.

He says that something funny happens, when he conducts an orchestra. There is a certain understanding between him and the horn section. They know that he was a horn player; he knows that they know. The common feeling is, “We know how hard this is, right?” “I don’t even look at them,” Salonen tells me. Often, when a conductor looks at an orchestra member, it’s to admonish, remonstrate, rebuke. “And the worse they play, the less I look at them.”

Believe me, musicians, especially orchestral musicians, would find this hilarious.