From blue & yellow to “Rødt, hvitt og blått”
A look at the creative people behind one of Norway’s most stirring patriotic anthems
Barbara K. Rostad
Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho
In one of life’s ironic twists, the melody for “Norway in Red, White, and Blue” came from the mind of the versatile Swedish composer Lars-Erik Larsson, born and bred in the nation Norway desired independence from when their 1814 Constitution was written, a desire not completely fulfilled until 1905.
Larsson, born in Åkorp, Sweden, in 1908, retained an eclectic style throughout his life, writing music for theatre, cinema, and broadcasting in addition to the more traditional forms of symphony, concerto, chamber, and vocal music.
Originally titled “Obligationsmarschen,” Larsson wrote his tune for the Swedish government to stimulate the sale of war bonds. Though Sweden retained neutrality throughout World War II, it chose to do so from a position of strength.
Sweden’s view was stated eloquently by Georg Homin, a captain on the General Staff, when he explained, “Without a defensive force we cannot follow any policy of our own, our declarations become empty words and we leave the country’s fate to chance or to the decision of others. With a defensive force as strong as Swedish conditions allow, we secure for ourselves the basis of a continued independent Swedish policy.”
Barely six weeks after Hitler’s invasion of Norway, a recording was released May 23, 1940, featuring Larsson’s tune with words by Alf Henrikson and sung by Ulla Billquist and Sven-Olof Sandberg. In it people were encouraged to meet their obligation to their nation through buying bonds.
The upbeat music caught on in Norway too but was quickly banned by the occupation forces. It wasn’t until 1945 that new words were created for the music, resulting in one of Norway’s favorite patriotic songs.
Sheet music in Mike and Else’s Norwegian Songbook, 1985, credits only Finn Bø with text. Some online sources name Arild Feldborg as co-author of the words while others add a third name, Tobias (Bias) Bernhoft.
None of these names belong in obscurity. Arild Feldborg was born in Vienna but raised in Norway. He was a Norwegian playwright, revue writer, script writer, humorist, and broadcasting personality. Both he and Bernhoft were awarded the Leonard Statuette, in 1980 and 1973 respectively. This prize is conferred by the Norwegian Comedy Writer’s Association to persons with significant and lasting importance to Norway’s entertainment industry.
As versatile with words as Larsson was with music, Feldborg has credits in radio, TV, crime novels, and a book on solving crosswords. During World War II, he was in exile in Sweden where he wrote songs for the Norwegian police troops there.
Bias Bernhoft, whose birthplace is Voss, occupied himself as a singer, revue writer, and shop owner.
How did the three names credited with lyrics for “Norway in Red, White, and Blue” come to collaborate? While details may not be known, several common threads that likely led to their interaction can be traced, starting with writing careers that included scripts and songs for revues. But another link occurred in their association with Chat Noir, a cabaret and revue theatre in Oslo established in 1912 and still operating. Named after its 19th-century counterpart in Paris, Le Chat Noir, it became a cultural place for many kinds of artists.
Here Feldborg and Bernhoft collaborated on a song that was part of a Chat Noir revue. Finn Bø had very close ties to Chat Noir from 1927 to 1940. And another link to all three was Lalla Carlsen, a Norwegian singer and actress who performed at Chat Noir from 1915 to 1947.
Regarded as one of the most legendary female revue artists in Norway, Carlsen was also in over 20 movies between 1927 and 1965, starting with silent films. In 1949 she was awarded the King’s Medal of Merit in gold. And it was she who introduced “Norway in Red, White & Blue” to the public in 1945.
Though the relative contribution from each of the three writers is not spelled out, it is fun to envision the interchange that led to the three verses of this peppy patriotic piece. Because of the emphasis on ways the flag’s colors appear in Norway’s landscape and the faces and clothing of students, including Russ, it is easy to assume that they were inspired to explore reflections of the flag when flying it was forbidden. But though the music dates from 1940, the words sung today were composed at the close of the war.
In verse three, victory fires are acclaimed and the flag itself is compared to “a thousand gleaming bonfires for all of those who have won, a flaming symbol in red, white, and blue,” ending with “You are ours, you are ours, old Norway! We will clothe you in red, white, and blue.”
And indeed, on May 17th, Norway is “dressed to the nines” in red, white, and blue, from flagpoles in Kirkenes to Oslo, in parades from the thousands bearing flags along Karl Johan to the dozens in smaller, more remote communities. That flag, and the children who bear them, fuse past and present to the future.
This article originally appeared in the May 5, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.