5th February marks the birth bicentenary of this legendary violinist. His showmanship involved publicity stunts like playing atop the Cheops pyramid in Egypt, at the time the highest man-made structure in the world. His friends, musical colleagues and acquaintances read like a Who’s Who of the time. He was a skilled luthier. As if all this were not accomplishment enough, he founded a colony in the United States, called New Norway.
He was Ole Bull (yes, that is his real name). He was born on February 5, 1810 in Bergen, Norway. His father wished for him to become a minister, but he was inexorably drawn towards music. At age nine he appeared as violin soloist with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.
He was sent to study law in Germany and then on to Paris in 1831, where he shared accommodation with the Moravian violinist Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst. Here he heard Paganini play, and became obsessed with his playing style and persona.
He made acquaintance with Chopin, Rossini and Hiller as well.
While in Paris, he also became a skilled violin-maker, apprenticing under the famed luthier Vuillaume.
Bull proceeded to become an extremely successful concert violinist. In England, he gave 274 concerts in one year alone. He spent a sizeable portion of his fortune on the collection of violins and violas of Stradivari, Gasparo de Salò, Guarneri, and Amati.
In 1840, he played Beethoven’s Kreutzer sonata in London, with Liszt at the piano.
In 1843, he arrived for the first time in the US, and took the country by storm. The New York Herald reported “…This extraordinary being–this Ole Bull– will produce an excitement throughout the Republic unlike anything that ever took place in our day…. tall and elegantly formed —as beautiful as the Apollo. . . ." When asked what master he had studied under, he replied serenely “God, the Infinite!”
Described as one of the most phenomenal violinists who ever lived, Bull had an infuriating (to his critics, at any rate) tendency to ignore the classic repertory in favour of more popular musical taste. One of his staple favourites was his own grand fantasia on “Yankee Doodle”. Ignoring convention, he shaped the violin bridge almost to the level of the fingerboard, to enable him to play full chords on all 4 strings.
Robert Schumann writes that Bull was among “the greatest of all” and on par with Paganini.
Ole Bull’s fan following has been compared with that of icons like Elvis Presley more recently. Women begged for, and were happy to pay for, samples of his bath water! Mark Twain and Thackeray basked in his friendship. Queen Isabella of Spain offered him a generalship in her army. Hans Christian Andersen depicted Bull as a fairy prince in his “Episode of Ole Bull’s life”, which in turn was the inspiration for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, a work set to music later by Grieg.
Longfellow wrote poems about him. In his “Tales of a Wayside Inn”, the Musician is modelled after Bull:
But from the parlor of the inn
A pleasant murmur smote the ear,
Like water rushing through a weir:
Oft interrupted by the din
Of laughter and of loud applause,
And, in each intervening pause,
The music of a violin.
Before the blazing fire of wood
Erect the rapt musician stood;
And ever and anon he bent
His head upon his instrument,
And seemed to listen, till he caught
Confessions of its secret thought,
— The joy, the triumph, the lament,
The exultation and the pain;
Then, by the magic of his art,
He soothed the throbbings of its heart,
And lulled it into peace again.
Fair-haired, blue-eyed, his aspect blithe.
His figure tall and straight and lithe,
And every feature of his face
Revealing his Norwegian race;
A radiance, streaming from within,
Around his eyes and forehead beamed,
The Angel with the violin,
Painted by Raphael, he seemed.
And when he played, the atmosphere
Was filled with magic, and the ear
Caught echoes of that Harp of Gold,
Whose music had so weird a sound,
The hunted stag forgot to bound,
The leaping rivulet backward rolled,
The birds came down from bush and tree,
The dead came from beneath the sea,
The maiden to the harper’s knee!
Like many of his contemporaries, Bull too got swept away by the wave of romantic nationalism, and campaigned for a sovereign Norway, separate from Sweden. He established a national theatre in his hometown of Bergen.
In 1853, he bought a large tract of land in Pennsylvania and founded a colony there, New Norway. One of the communities was named Oleana, after him. However, Bull was no businessman or farmer, and the colony soon dwindled as the land was not fit for cultivation, and Bull returned to the busy life of a concert career.
It was Bull who spotted the young Edvard Grieg’s talent in 1858, and persuaded his parents to send him to Leipzig Conservatory. Bull’s brother was Grieg’s uncle by marriage.
He composed several works incorporating Norwegian themes. Few of them have survived. Today he is best known for Säterjentens Söndag (The dairymaid`s Sunday), usually played in a string arrangement by Svendsen.
Regrettably, Bull lived and died before the era of recordings, so it is impossible for us to guess at what his playing must have sounded like.
His funeral in 1880 was the most spectacular in Norway’s history. The ship carrying his body was guided by 15 steamers and a whole fleet of smaller craft.
At his grave, Edvard Grieg gave the following oration:
"Because you were above all others an honour to your country; because you above all others have raised our people to the sunlit heights of art; because you were the first pioneer of our new, more national music, above all others faithful, warm-hearted and soul-conquering; because you have thus planted a seed that will bear rich fruit in the future and for which coming generations will bless you; with a thousand and again a thousand thanks for all of this, I place this laurel wreath on your grave in behalf of Norwegian music. May you rest in peace."
© Luis Dias 2010
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Herald, Goa, India on February 5, 2010)