Ole Bull:The Norwegian Violin Virtuoso May 27 2022

Ole Bull portrait


Born Ole Bornemann Bull (1810-1880), the violinist has been overshadowed by contemporaries of his time as Paganini (1782-1840), Wieniawski (1835-1880) and subsequently Ysaÿe (1858-1931). Be that as it may, Bull was still one of the most celebrated artists of his time, often being hailed as the “Norwegian Paganini” for his fiery virtuosity and compositions as described by Robert Schumann who commented that Bull was on a level with Paganini for the speed and clarity of his playing.



Ole Bull signed CDV

Born in Lyso, Bergen, Norway in 1810, Ole Bull grew to be an individual who took on a keen awareness of not only his musical surroundings, but also his political environment. His awareness of the events and movements which were giving shape to the future of Europe grew as well. In 1815 with Napoleon Bonaparte's conquests at an end, Europe's major powers, acting at the Congress of Vienna, re-established and redrew the political boundaries of the continent. In the midst of these events a sense of national identity was growing. He was the eldest of ten children of Johan Storm Bull (1787–1838) and Anna Dorothea Borse Geelmuyden (1789–1875).

[IMAGE] Carte-de-Visite depicting Ole Bull in his maturity

His father wished for him to become a minister, but Bull desired a musical career. At the age of four, he could play all of the songs he had heard his mother play on the violin. Bull's parents had hoped that he would learn Latin and go on to study Lutheran theology, but by the time he was eight he had filled in with the string quartet himself and had been made a student member of a local orchestra called the Harmonien. At age nine, he played first violin in the orchestra of Bergen's theatre and was a soloist with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.



Bull had no use for his Latin studies. Unsurprisingly, Bull failed the Latin exam that was given as part of his application to attend the University of Christiania (now the University of Oslo) in 1828. At first a pupil of the violinist Paulsen, and subsequently self-taught, he was intended for the church, but failed in his examinations in 1828 and became a musician, directing the philharmonic and dramatic societies at Bergen. He joined the Musical Lyceum, a musical society, and after its director Waldemar Thrane was taken ill, Bull became the director of Musical Lyceum and the Theater Orchestra in 1828.

Ole Bull Signed CDV

Although despondent at the failure of his university application, Bull soon found work as a violinist with a local theater orchestra and was soon promoted to temporary conductor. That was not the end of Bull's nonmusical education, however.

[IMAGE] Carte-de-Visite of the Norwegian violinist by photographer H.T. Anthony, New York.



A child prodigy, Bull aspired not only to be a performer, but also a composer. Among his oeuvre of works were several that expressed his great love for his home country. Bull shared his love of Norway with another country - the United States of America. He had made a triumphant tour of the country from 1843-1845, and had been enthusiastically acclaimed wherever he played. Both audiences and critic fell head over heels for this Norwegian virtuoso, who was only in his early thirties.



Bull crossed paths with the Moravian violin virtuoso Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, whom he met in Paris in 1832 and even shared rooms with the latter. Bull later succeeded in becoming a violin virtuoso of the first order, giving thousands of concerts in the U.S, England (even playing in remote regions, and in total giving 275 concerts in 1837, at the age of 27!) and various parts of the world.

On December 27, 1836, Catherine Darwin wrote to her brother, Charles Robert Darwin (an English naturalist, geologist and biologist, best known for his contributions to evolutionary biology) about a Shrewsbury concert when "the best performer was Ole Bull on the Violin, who I think very superior to Paganini".

Ole Bull Photograph

Although largely self-taught, Bull became one of the great virtuosos of the 19th century. In 1850 he founded the Norwegian National Theater in Bergen, and he appointed the 23-year-old Henrik Ibsen as playwright and stage manager. In 1852 he made an abortive attempt to found a Norwegian colony in Pennsylvania, which cost him much of his fortune.

[IMAGE] A beautiful photograph of Ole Bull in performance, mounted  on a larger card and signed by him at the bottom.



As Bull was a deep patriot of his homeland, the fact that the Congress confirmed the claim of the royal house of Sweden to sovereignty over Norway made a young and impressionable Bull very upset and he deplored the Swedes' refusal to recognise Norway's independence, and responded to it by joining artists and writers in the "Young Norway" movement in his early days. The movement aimed to revive the culture of their people and free it from the influence of both Sweden and Denmark. Bull and his friends were further convinced that cultural independence could not flourish until political separation had been achieved. As a result, the youthful Bull and his friends staged frequent demonstrations against the Swedish authorities.


Bull had a burning passion to revitalize Norwegian arts, which ultimately led him to the founding in 1849 of the National Theater at Bergen, the town of his birth when he was 39 years old. Aided by a number of generous patrons, he planned the theater for the staging of Norwegian drama and music and for the encouragement of local art. Bull's dream was ultimately crushed, for within two years the theater closed.


He acclaimed the idea of Norway as a sovereign state, separate from Sweden—which became a reality in 1905. In 1850, he co-founded the first theater in which actors spoke Norwegian rather than Danish, namely Det Norske Theater in Bergen—which later became Den Nationale Scene.



Ole Bull Concert Program

In the summer of 1858, Bull met the 15-year-old Edvard Grieg. Bull was a close friend of the Grieg family, since Ole Bull's brother was married to the sister of Grieg's mother. Bull noticed Edvard's talent and persuaded his parents to send him to further develop his talents at the Leipzig Conservatory. During the 1860s and 1870s Bull went on several tours across the U.S., often accompanied by soprano Varian Hoffman, baritone Ignatz Pollak, and pianist Edward Hoffman. He was concertmaster at the National Peace Jubilee (June 15–19, 1869) which featured an orchestra of 525 players.

[IMAGE] Program for a concert in Boston (1868) by the star violinist and by the American organist and composer Eugene Thayer

Robert Schumann once wrote that Bull was among "the greatest of all," and that he was on a level with Niccolò Paganini for the speed and clarity of his playing. Bull was also a friend of Franz Liszt and played with him on several occasions.



Among his ardent fans was James Gordon Bennett, who used his newspaper, the New York Herald, to review with uncritical praise the genius of "the prince of violinists." Describing the effect of his first performance, the Herald wrote: "At the close of some of his wonderful cadences, the very musicians in the orchestra flung down their instruments and stamped and applauded like madmen." A few critics felt it was Bull's pyrotechnic style and dramatic manner that captivated the musically uninitiated, rather than his musical accomplishment.


Ole Bull Program recital in Chicago with Emma Thursby 1880


Bull's admiration for his American audiences was as ardent as theirs for him. His itinerary included many of the towns and villages of the eastern United States as well as visits to Canada and Cuba. Everywhere he went he was warmly received, his sentimental nature responsive to the easy-going and democratic, if sometimes rough, manner of his New World admirers. The tour inspired several of his musical compositions, such as the gorgeous "Niagara" and "Prairie Solitude," and the sty of several years produced an affection for America second only to the love which he had for his native Norway.


[IMAGE] Program for a recital by Ole Bull with with soprano Emma Thursby in Chicago (1880)



In 1852 Bull returned to America. He had dreamt of establishing a home in America where Norwegians, accustomed to a meagre living from an unyielding soil, could prosper. After giving performances in New York and Montreal, he contacted a friend, John Hopper, who introduced him to John F. Cowan, a businessman from Williamsport, Pennsylvania.


Cowan informed him of a large tract of land which he owned, having a topography extremely similar to Bull's homeland. The plot of land was situated along Kettle Creek near the southeast corner of Potter County, the heart of the so-called Black Forest. On May 24, 1853 (the year following that of the first settlement), John F. Cowan and his wife, Rosetta, deeded to Ole Bull eleven warrants of land in Potter County for $10,388. The deed also defined three "reservations," which due to the restrictions they imposed on the new colony, were to lead to its demise. The reservations withheld 658 acres from the sale, thereby reserving much of the tillable land to the original owners, a fact that Bull would not realize until later. The land area included in the deed was 11,144 acres.


Both the colonists and the people of the county predicted a bright future for the colony and for the county. Most felt that because of Ole Bull's enterprise the whole area would prosper. Trees at the colony site were cleared, not by chopping but by the practice of "grubbing," a procedure by which the trees were removed roots and all. This practice was too time-consuming and proved to be, like the colony itself, a mistake.


By 1857 Bull had returned to Norway, disillusioned by the failure of his colony. The next ten years of his life he would spend close to his home in Bergen.



Ole Bull unsigned CDV with a facsimile signature

In 1836 he had married a Frenchwoman, Alexandrine Félicie Villeminot, who bore him six children and who died in 1862. Of his children, only two survived him. Their children were: Ole Storm Felix Bull (1837–39), Alexander Ole Felix Etienne Bull (1839–1914), Thorvald Bull (1841–62), Eleonore Felicie Bull (1843–1923), Ernst Bornemann Bull (1844; lived only 5 months) and Lucie Edvardine Bull (1846–68).

[IMAGE] Carte-de-Visite depicting Ole Bull posing with his violin and with a facsimile signature below.

During a trip to America in 1868 Bull met Sara Chapman Thorp (1850–1911), the daughter of a prosperous lumber merchant from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. On a return visit in 1870, despite their age difference (he was 60, she was 20), Bull began a courtship, and the couple was secretly married in Norway in June 1870, with a formal wedding in Madison later that year. They had one daughter, Olea (1871–1913). In 1872, Bull returned to Norway to his final home on the Island of Lysöen, or island of light, a 650-acre island on the North Sea, from which Sara and he made periodic visits to the United States. Along the path to the castle site in Ole Bull State Park is Lyso Spring, a beautiful spring which is now covered. he bought a summer home on a rise in West Lebanon, Maine which he named Ironwell. Sara traveled with Bull for the remainder of his career, sometimes accompanying him on the piano. In 1883 she published a memoir of Bull's life.



Bull died of cancer in 1880, and was buried with great ceremony in his hometown, Bergen. His colony was long past, the lumber industry was on the verge of a boom, and soon all that would remain or remind one of Ole Bull's shattered dream, New Norway, would be the few colonists who had chosen to stay, the colony's cemetery, and Ole Bull State Park (established in 1920), which contains the site of the "castle" and 117 acres that are a haven for the outdoorsman and the lover of nature.



Bull is believed to have composed more than 70 works. Listed here are some of his more well-known pieces.

Ole Bull portrait in an unsigned CDV

1833 Norges fjelde = Souvenirs de Norvège

1833 Barcarolle, sang og klaver

1834 Violin Concerto No.1, Op.4 in A major (1864)

1834 Kvartett, fiolin, G-dur (Quartet for Solo Violin)

1835 Polacca Guerriera (rev. 1864)

1837 Scotch Fantasie - Homage til Edinburgh

1843 Siciliano e Tarantella

1844 El Agiaco Cubano = Kubansk Potpurri (for Violin and Orchestra) also for piano solo

1844 Erinnerung an Havanna (Minner fra Havanna = Recuerdos de Habana)

1844 Niagara Fantasia Pastorale (for Violin and Orchestra)

1849 Sætergjentens søndag (The Herd girls Sunday)

1849 Fjeldstuen, scenemusikk

1851 Kunstens Magt

1856 Fantasi over amerikanske melodier. Arkansas the way it wouldn't do

1863 I ensomme stunde (In Moments of Solitude)

1872 Vision for Violin and Piano



Bull was a keen instrument enthusiast. After an extended meeting in Paris with the famed French luthier, dealer and instrument expert Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, Bull was well on his way to amassing one of the finest instrument collection the world has ever seen. He had in his possession fine violins and violas by Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati, da Salò, among others. Some famed instruments include a 1574 violin by Gasparo da Salò for Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria. The violin, a gift of his widow to Bull's birthplace, is now in the Bergen Vestlandske Kustindustrimuseum. Bull often performed with del Gesù violins during his career. The most notable Guarneri violin bears his name, the 1744 “Ole Bull del Gesù, which is now in the hands of Taiwan’s Chimei Foundation, on loan to musicians only on rare occasions of special concerts.



Ole Bull monument in Bergen, Norway

After the great violinist passed away in 1880 at the age of 70, his legacy was to reach far and wide. His villa on the island of Lysøen was donated to the Association of Norwegian Ancient Monuments Conservation. Museet Lysøen consists of violinist Ole Bull's Villa, an old farm from the 17th century. The Ole Bull State Park in the Susquehannock State Forest is on the original site chosen for Bull's colony. The unfinished Ole Bull Castle is maintained by the park and can be visited by hikers. A monument to honor Ole Bull was placed in the park on the 150th anniversary of New Norway in 2002.

[IMAGE] Ole Bull monument in Bergen, Norway

A cottage, originally purchased to be a school for music by Ole Bull and his wife, is at Green Acre Baháʼí School in Eliot, Maine. Erected in 1896, the Ole Bull Cottage currently serves as the school library building.


In 2010 the Norwegian record label 2L released world premiere recordings of Ole Bull's violin concertos and his Spanish fantasy La Verbena de San Juan and a previously unknown version for violin and strings of A Sæterbesøg. The performers on the disc are Annar Follesø, violin, and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra conducted by Ole Kristian Ruud.


Around the early 1900s, a commercial signature line of Ole Bull violins was manufactured in Germany. Lastly, the Wisconsin Historical Society has in their possession, a posthumous, full-length portrait of Ole Bull with violin painted by James Reeve Stuart.



- Ole Bull Signed Carte-de-Visite 1868

Ole Bull Signed Vintage Photograph

Ole Bull Concert Program 1868 in Boston

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