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Organizing the Nobel Festival Day

- Some Recollections

by Lena de Champs*
21 June 2000

Prize Award Ceremony - Stockholm Concert Hall

On this late Swedish winter afternoon 1,700 people have just served as extras during a glittering, dignified ceremony inside the Stockholm Concert Hall. This is where the Nobel Prizes have been presented to their winners on December 10 since the late 1920s.

Stockholm Concert Hall
Outside the Stockholm Concert Hall on the eve of December 10.
Photo: Peter Gullers

The Nobel program is timed to the second. The learned men and women assigned to harangue the Nobel Laureates have delivered their speeches. One after the other, the Laureates have taken a few steps across the stage and accepted their gold medal and diploma from the hand of King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. After each prize presentation, the audience has been offered a few moments of reflection to the music of the Royal Swedish Philharmonic Orchestra.

The orchestra has perched itself in a gallery above and behind the stage, where the Royal Family, the Laureates and some 150 members of the Prize-Awarding Institutions have been seated. Selecting the music for the Concert Hall ceremony is difficult. The orchestra gallery is long and narrow. It requires all the skill a conductor can muster to keep together the orchestra, which is pared down for practical reasons. The musical numbers must be short, no more than 5-6 minutes. This restricts the choices to brief tone poems, overtures, arias, marches and the like. Over the years, soloists have been engaged - at first sporadically, today as a permanent feature of the music program. The young tenor Jussi Björling sang Wilhelm Stenhammar's "Sverige" in 1936. In 1968 world-renowned soprano Birgit Nilsson sang no fewer than three songs, accompanied by the Concert Hall organ, standing on the stage next to the Laureates. Her appearance dominated the program and was said to have drawn attention away from the Laureates. Organizers have refrained from repeating this experiment, and the soloists now perform from the orchestra gallery. Vocal soloists have predominated but on a few occasions, trumpet and trombone soloists have tried hard to blow the tiaras off the ladies on stage.

Birgit Nilsson
Soprano Birgit Nilsson sang no fewer than three songs at the Award Ceremony in 1968.
Photo: Reportagebild

Each guest in the auditorium is assigned an individual seat, depending on his or her affiliation with Nobel-related work or the person's position in the hierarchy of guests. Members of the Swedish government sit in the front row. One particular year, people were amazed when an anonymous lady with an Oriental appearance sat down in an empty seat in the middle of the first row just before the ceremony was to begin. The security guards were apoplectic, and the TV and radio commentators confused. She sat there calmly throughout the ceremony. As it turned out later, she had quickly discovered a much better seat than hers and simply moved there.

Paul Boyer

Chemistry Laureate (1997) Paul D. Boyer receiving his award from the hands of His Majesty King Carl Gustaf of Sweden.
Copyright © Pica Pressfoto
Photo: Anders Wiklund


At the end of the program, members of the audience have joined in singing the Swedish national anthem, "Du gamla, du fria." The royal guests have left the auditorium. Suddenly the whole stage has filled up with family members and colleagues who want to share the joy of the Laureates.

family and friends of Nobel Laurates
After the royal guests have left the Concert Hall, family members and colleagues crowd the stage to congratulate the Laureates.

And we have now reached the moment when outside the Concert Hall, limousines and buses are waiting to carry most of the guests to their next stop, the Blue Hall of the Stockholm City Hall, the venue of the evening's Nobel Banquet in honor of the Laureates.

The Banquet - City Hall of Stockholm

Upon their arrival at the City Hall, guests gather in the foyer outside the Blue Hall, waiting to be let in to take their seats. Meanwhile the Laureates and other guests of honor are already one flight up in the Prince's Gallery, being greeted by the Royal Family. What the other guests see as they crowd into the foyer is the splendidly set tables in the Blue Hall. They see imaginative flower arrangements which fill the hall with fragrances. The flowers are a gift to the festivities from the city of San Remo, Italy, where Alfred Nobel lived out his last days. Candelabras and gold-plated bronze étagères rise from the head table, giving it an air of royal splendor.

table settings
Table settings at the Blue Hall before the 1,300 guests arrive.
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation
Photo: Boo Jonsson

The time approaches 6:30 p.m. In half an hour, at exactly 7 p.m., trumpet fanfares will sound, announcing the procession of honored guests along the balustrade leading to the famous grand staircase of the Blue Hall. The Nobel Laureates, Their Majesties, and other guests of honor will move down the stairs in organized formations, accompanied by festively solemn organ music, joining the other guests and taking their seats at a 25-meter (82 ft) long head table in the middle of the hall. The mood is almost electric.

trumpets
Trumpet fanfares signal the procession of Their Majesties and the Laureates down the stairway of the Blue Hall.
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation
Photo: Hans Pettersson

The City Hall's banquet staffers - veterans of numerous corporate parties and anniversary events - have recharged their mental batteries and are as excited as the guests. On the dot at 6:30, the "ropes" of white capped students in rows part and give way for the guests to search for their seats. Soon the time comes: fanfares are heard and the organ begins to play. The Banquet of banquets can begin.

seated guests

The guests are finally seated and the Banquet of banquets can begin.
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation
Photo: Hans Pettersson


Much-coveted Invitations

It was not always like this. The first Nobel dinners were served at the Grand Hôtel in Stockholm. In those days the guests, decorated with medals and ribbons of fraternal orders, totaled fewer than 150 people - a manageable number of guests for a banquet organizer. At the very first Nobel dinner in 1901 there were only male guests. Today the two-woman strong Nobel Festivities secretariat handles nearly ten times this many Banquet guests, but on the other hand they have a roomful of computers at their disposal.

By mid-October, the names of all the Nobel Laureates have been announced. Nobel Day invitations have been dispatched to the different categories of guests of honor: researchers and scholars of all nationalities, representatives of the global cultural and scientific community, members of Swedish public life etc. Beyond these categories, the invitation climate is chillier. Nowadays many people clamor to attend the Nobel Festivities. Their requests in letter form pile up, and nowadays every newly arrived request is carefully weighed. To parody the familiar saying, "Many feel called, but few are chosen."

People with distant ties to academia pick up a pen and ask to be remembered with tickets. Hopeful relatives of people celebrating round-numbered birthdays and anniversaries try to wheedle tickets to the December 10 festivities. Some people simply want to relive fond memories of their vanished student days, when they had the privilege of attending. The list could be made long, and it is long. In such cases, the reply is often in the negative, but with due respect for the inquirer's right to ask whether it is possible.

invitation
A much-coveted invitation. Alas, "many feel called, but few are chosen."
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation

But a lucky few are chosen. They immediately receive a handsome invitation card bearing the traditional hot-embossed gold foil medal depicting Alfred Nobel. Others are placed until further notice on a waiting list, which is becoming longer and longer. A person who performs Nobel-related work can feel relatively certain to land a seat eventually. Foreign researchers whose work may benefit Swedish research can also feel sure of getting an invitation. The Nobel Foundation stubbornly insists that this Banquet of banquets is an academic event and adheres to the formalities.

Preparing the Dinner of the Year

In recent years, each Banquet has been a gastronomically enjoyable experience. Responsible for the menu is "Föreningen Årets Kock" (The Chef of the Year Association). No later than October, a test meal is sampled by a competent panel, consisting of well-reputed restaurateurs and the Nobel Foundation's own gourmets. The same care is devoted to the wines. The menu that this jury chooses is kept secret until 7 p.m. on December 10. The only thing that people can be sure of is that the dessert will consist of ice cream. Also served are vegetarian dishes, alcohol-free beverages, gluten-free dishes and sometimes kosher food if guests request them.

The menu is closely monitored by the outside world, as illustrated by the fact that one year, animal lovers reacted indignantly to the presence on the menu of a dish referred to as "stock dove." They found it offensive that so many of these wild doves had to sacrifice their lives for the Banquet and informed the Nobel Foundation accordingly. Fortunately the dish that was being served was, in fact, not stock dove. The menu description was based on a mistranslation. The specially raised squabs that had sacrificed their lives did not trigger the same protests.

dessert
One of the high points at the Banquet is when dessert is being served.

 

Over the years, column miles have been written about the Nobel Banquet. In many ways it is a unique celebration, filled with enjoyment and music, tradition and innovation. Large banquets are usually stiff and boring affairs - but not the Nobel dinner, which is a festive mixture of royal banquet, family gathering and student celebration. The Royal Family is present. Relatives and friends of the Laureates make it a family gathering. University and college students - the Nobel Prize winners of the future - are allotted 200 seats. They submit application forms to Swedish student union offices, which perform the task of distributing the seats by lottery to many times more than 200 applicants.

Seats for Students

The 200-seat quota includes 50 students who perform the honorary task of parading with banners and standards during the latter part of the Banquet, when the Laureates deliver their speeches and shortly before the guests rise from the tables. "Students from the Swedish universities and colleges bearing the standards of their student unions pay homage to the Laureates," as it says in the printed program. The Nobel Foundation also has at its disposal some 30 students, both male and female, who are selected by the students themselves to act as stewards - among other things assisting the other Banquet guests. It is a sought-after assignment.

students
Students acting as stewards in their gala finery and "obligatory" white caps.

The Seating Arrangement Puzzle

To put together the seating arrangement puzzle, the Nobel Festivities secretariat uses small seating labels in various colors. These labels contain every imaginable kind of information about each guest, based on the reply cards that the Foundation has received and the substantial personal knowledge that the Foundation has accumulated over the years. When guests arrive at the Banquet, they are completely unaware that they have been systematically and carefully sorted in the Foundation's computers and assigned such code names as BOA 4, which stands for member number 4 of the Nobel Foundation's Board of Directors, or NOB 1, which signifies the chairman of the Nobel family association.

working on seating arrangement
"May I be seated next to the Queen?" Lena de Champs (right) and Gunilla Lagerfelt-Berg working out the seating arrangement puzzle.
Photo: Lars Åström

The reply cards that each guest fills out include a line for "special requests." No year goes by without someone asking hopefully to be seated next to the Queen, or in any case as closely as possible, "preferably with eye contact." But most guests have less earth-shaking requests. Many of them wish to be seated among their colleagues, while a few declare that they wish to be seated "as far from colleagues as possible." Occasionally someone expresses the hope of being seated among people who are "As nice as possible." This is more easily achieved than one might think. Banquet guests have ample opportunities to strike up interesting conversations. Their initial solemn attitude gradually gives way to a relaxed realization that being at the Banquet is actually fun. The body language of the guests clearly shows that this is the case. They converse straight across the table and at angles across the table, drink to each other's health and make new contacts. A few years ago, two strangers, an American man and a Swedish woman, both researchers, were placed side by side at the Banquet. As far as we know, they are still side by side - as a married couple living in the United States. Occasionally a Laureate has invited both his ex-wife and his current wife to accompany him to Stockholm. On one such occasion, the Nobel Foundation received instructions to seat these ladies far apart, without any possibility of eye contact, and it followed these instructions, for the sake of domestic peace.

The Nobel Foundation tries to make sure that each guest's three-plus hours at the Banquet table will be as pleasant as possible. If the choice of seating has not been so successful despite this effort, the guests can enjoy a diversion in the form of a 20-minute musical performance that takes place just before the dessert is served.

Highly Artistic Divertissement

This performance maintains a high artistic level and is based on vocal and instrumental music or dance. It should preferably also include humor and surprise effects. In recent years, the Foundation has taken pains to use lighting for the performance that is as striking and beautiful as possible. Serving as a stage is the Blue Hall's grand staircase, which is a suitable venue for pomp, celebration and music. According to connoisseurs, the "mini-opera" that was presented in 1996, featuring late 19th century music, was perhaps the best show ever presented during the almost 100-year history of the Nobel Banquet. It nosed out the 1992 production, in which Anja Birnbaum of the Pyramids dance troupe appeared in a white dress whose wide sleeves were transformed at times by the stage lighting into a white whirling angel's costume, at times into a glowing red flame.

Anja Birnbaum

Anja Birnbaum
Anja Birnbaum of the Pyramids dance group appearing (and disappearing) in a whirling angel's costume.
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation
Photos: Boo Jonsson

Banquet entertainment in the form of a "divertissement" - a coherent show, carefully directed and prepared in the smallest detail - is an invention that goes back less than 10 years. During the 1970s and 1980s, choir music was a recurring element during each Banquet. In the 1980s Swedish student orchestras were given the opportunity to entertain the guests. They did their job with vigor, and if professionalism was missing, it was replaced by disarming enthusiasm. The top prize went to "The Demand Curves," a troupe of can-can girls from the Stockholm School of Economics, who had obviously never been anywhere near the Place Pigalle. Going further back in time, the guests had to go completely without the pleasure provided by this entertaining interruption in the Nobel Banquet.

opera
The "mini-opera" presented in 1996 featuring late 19th century music.
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation
Photo: Boo Jonsson

After Dinner Speeches

Toward the end of the Banquet, the Laureates also mount the stairway that we call a stage - in their capacity as representatives of the Nobel Prizes they have received. They are led to the podium individually by young, festively dressed students. The Laureates express their thanks for the work of the prize-awarding institutions and for their experiences during the day and evening. Some of their speeches contain a dash of social criticism. The mood in the hall varies with the choice of subject. Others express themselves informally and humorously, spicing up their address with a funny story. A few have even been heard to sing a verse or two.

Wislawa Szymborska
1996 Literature Laureate Wislawa Szymborska acknowledging the warm applause following her speech at the Nobel Banquet.
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation
Photo: Boo Jonsson

One recent Laureate chose to tell the story of the Nobel Prize winner who stopped at a service station during a car trip with his wife. He was greatly amazed when she jumped out of the car and hugged a man in blue overalls who seemed to be the owner of the station. All indications were that they knew each other well. When she returned to the car he asked, somewhat annoyed, who was this man whom she had greeted so effusively. Learning that it was an old boyfriend of hers, he could not help but point out to his wife that she should nevertheless be glad that she had married him instead and was now the wife of a Nobel Laureate. The wife immediately replied: "If I had married him, he would have become a Nobel Laureate." The roar of laughter that greeted this story almost brought down the roof of the Blue Hall. But all of the Laureates can count on hearty applause.

Shortly afterward - when the Banquet is over - the Nobel Laureates, royal guests, professors, students and all the other guests rise from their seats and make their way up the staircase to the Golden Hall, where the dance orchestra has begun to play a Viennese waltz. The Royal Couple continue to the Prince's Gallery, where they have a chance to round off their conversations with the Laureates before it is time for them to head home in the winter night. For the Laureates and students, the evening is far from over. Another party awaits at one of the Stockholm student unions. But as they say in the fairytale, "that is another story."

Günter Grass
After dinner dancing. 1999 Literature Laureate Günter Grass takes several turns at the dance floor of the Golden Hall with his wife.
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation
Photo: Hans Pettersson



Translated by Victor Kayfetz

* Lena de Champs was in charge of the Nobel Festivities Secretariat between 1983 and 1999.

 

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2000

 

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