Crowds have gathered on Parliament Hill in Ottawa the past three evenings for the 21st edition of Fortissimo, an annual military band performance and tattoo. Seeing a few hundred shorts-and t-shirt clad tourists and local residents wearing baseball caps and sunglasses while they watch uniformed people parade around with guns is just one of the amusing paradoxes of an event like Fortissimo. It made me think of how Canadians really do live in a society where authority is not feared, but is rather a source of entertainment on a summer Friday evening. I listened and looked around the crowd and could tell many of the spectators were from countries where authority is something to be feared, but they too seemed to be enjoying the show.
The main performers at Fortissimo are the Central Band of the Canadian Armed Forces, the RCAF Band (air force), and the soldiers and Band of the Ceremonial Guard. The Ceremonial Guard is actually a temporary, non-combative unit attached to the Governor General’s Foot Guards, a reserve regiment of the Canadian Army. Most members of the Ceremonial Guard are college students who enlist in it for a summer job. They live in the dorms at Carleton University and train on the campus. They also perform in the daily summer Changing of the Guard ceremonies on Parliament Hill and do sentry duty at the gates of Government House where the Governor-General lives. They wear traditional British-style “redcoat” uniforms and wear hot and heavy bearskin hats, just like their counterparts in the UK. At Fortissimo, the Canadian bands, which included both brass and bagpipes, performed traditional military marches and hymns.
Fortissimo has international participation. The Band of America’s Few participated this year. It is composed of retired and honorably discharged musicians who served in the United States Marine Corps. The Band of America’s Few played America the Beautiful, and the easily recognizable and upbeat The Stars and Stripes Forever. During the latter song, I noticed that a few Canadians unfortunately do believe the correct words to America’s National March are about being kind to our web-footed friends. The band then marched across Parliament Hill, playing the Marines’ Hymn. Ottawa isn’t quite the Halls of Montezuma or the Shores of Tripoli though.
The other international performers were a small group of sailors from the German navy. The musicians from the “musikorps” of the Ministry of Defense only played fifes and drums. They began with traditional marches, but then surprised the crowd with a pretty good rendition of Queen’s We Will Rock You. The sailors even shouted it in unison a few times before performing impressive drill moves with excellent skill and precision.
The Canadian and U.S. bands performed Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Soldiers fired blanks from rifles and artillery guns placed behind the Centre Block added bangs and booms wherever the score required. Then all of the soldiers and sailors assembled for the Canadian flag to be lowered as the sun went down. The mass band played Das Deutschlandlied, The Star Spangled Banner, and O Canada. Fortissimo was an impressive display of pageantry and talent, with the paradoxes of casual civilian life.