Bull, Ole


A famous Norwegian violinist of strong individuality and originality. Riemann defines him as " a famous though somewhat eccentric violin-virtuoso, whose capricious playing often brought on him the reproach of charlatanism." But though Ole Bull's playing was capricious, though he resorted to tricks with his violin, he was saved by the poetry of his interpretations from meriting the term charlatan.

Though largely self-taught, he attained to a very rare technical proficiency. He was a much better interpreter of his own work than of any other and seldom played any but his own compositions, being noted for his improvisations. He used a bow of unusual length and heaviness, which a smaller man could not have employed; and played with an almost flat bridge which, although there were disadvantages in its use, allowed the production of very beautiful effects. Some critics characterized his playing as wanting in taste, but it was universally conceded that he performed with much skill and feeling. George William Curtis said of him: "Ole Bull is precisely an irrefragable fact, against which criticism may dash its, head at leisure. The public heart will follow him and applaud, because he plays upon its strings as deftly as upon those of a violin."

In America, Ole Bull enjoyed the greatest popularity. He was immensely successful here, being so popular that the concert halls often proved inadequate for the crowds that thronged to hear him. He came to America first in 1843, and made his last visit in 1879. He amassed a large fortune in this country. His second wife, whom he married in 1870, was an American. His last winter, the winter of 1879, he spent at Cambridge. He lived at Elmwood, in Lowell's house and mingled with the literary society of Cambridge and Boston. He was on intimate terms with Longfellow, and is the tall musician, "the blue-eyed Norseman," described in the Wayside Tales. Many of his compositions are on American themes To the memory of Washington, Niagara, The Solitude of the Prairies. He dreamed of founding in America a Norwegian colony, and with this object in view purchased 125,000 acres of land in Pennsylvania; a store and church were built and many colonists had taken up residence, when the discovery was made that the title to the land was not clear, and that Ole Bull was the victim of a gigantic swindle. Now for long tedious years he was involved in litigation, lost a very large sum of money, and found himself practically ruined. Financial loss and the misunderstanding of his countrymen at home were the rewards attending his efforts to establish the Norwegian colony.

In appearance and character Ole Bull was a typical Norseman. He was of giant build, fair-haired and blue-eyed, original, independent, and courageous. After his loss at the hands of the unscrupulous agent in the Pennsylvania colony scheme, he at once set to work to rebuild his fortunes and accomplished this in a comparatively short time. He loved with a deep and abiding passion the Northland and the North folk, and was always planning and working for them. He labored zealously, but unsuccessfully, to found "a Norse theatre with a Norse orchestra," but not until years after his death was this effort fully appreciated. Herr Paul David, writing in Grove, declares that the ruling passion of Ole Bull's life was the love he bore to his native land. "The glorious scenery of the mountains and fjords of his home, the weird poetry of the Sagas of the North, took hold of his sensitive mind from early childhood and filled his imagination. They were reflected in his style of playing, and gave to it that originality and poetic charm by which he never failed to captivate his audience."

Ole Bull was born at Bergen, Norway, in 1810, and was the son of a physician. Several of his kinsfolk were musical, and during his boyhood he dwelt in an environment that gave him inspiration for the career in which he was to become worldfamed. That he might play at the family gatherings, he studied the violin by himself, and presently became so proficient as to be able to play first violin in a public orchestra. He received some instruction from teachers in Bergen, but not much, his father not approving of Ole following the profession of a musician. However, the music interest was always strong with him, and at the University of Christiania, where he had been sent to study theology, he failed '.n his Latin but won the post of musicdirector of the Philharmonic and Dramatic Society. That he might hear Spohr, whose compositions he ardently admired, and that he might get the renowned teacher's judgment of his own work, he left Christiania and journeyed to Cassel. Spohr gave him but a cold reception, and Ole Bull, after tarrying awhile at Gottingen, where his playing was well applauded, returned to Norway. In Christiania the people welcomed him back warmly. He gave successful concerts at Trondhjem and Bergen, and thought himself now in a position to make his way in Paris. But the early Paris days were days of disheartening struggle and gloom; unknown and unappreciated he walked the streets of the gay city; he lost his money, he met with no success in his search for a hearing, and his case grew so desperate that the waters of the Seine seemed to invite him to end it all. Fortunately at the darkest hour a friend appeared, Madame Villeminot, a wealthy lady who took him into her home, and from this on his fortunes mended. In 1836 he married Felicie Villeminot, granddaughter of his benefactress, and the union proved a very happy one.

It was in 1831 that Ole Bull first heard Paganini play, hearing whom inspired him to renewed hope and vigor. In 1832 he made his first public appearance in Paris, played with Chopin and other great artists, and then went to Italy, where he entered into his own. At Bologna, the most musical city in Italy, Ole Bull may be said to have experienced the beginning of his great celebrity. He conquered even Naples, a city more fond of singer than of player. Presently his fame spread throughout Europe, and ere long both in Europe and North America the name of Ole Bull became a household word.

Ole Bull counted among his friends Liszt and Chopin, and through his friendship with the latter figures in George Sand's Malgretout. He was on terms of intimacy with Mendelssohn, Rossini showed him favors, Hans Christian Andersen was a close friend, and he was admired by the great Malibran, and appreciated by Paganini. To the end of his long life he traveled and gave concerts. He celebrated his seventieth birthday in America, and the same year died at his country place near Bergen. Ole Bull played with his whole soul, played he to peasant or played he to prince, and on his death was mourned by prince and peasant alike. Upon his coffin, his friend Edvard Grieg, laid a laurel wreath; saying, as he placed it, " in the name of our Norse memorial art."