Ole Bull

Ole Bull

Norwegian violinist and composer.
Date of Birth: 05.02.1810
Country: Norway

  1. Biography of Ole Bull
  2. Early Life and Education
  3. Early Career
  4. Romantic Life and Romanticism
  5. International Success
  6. Legacy and Later Life

Biography of Ole Bull

Ole Bull was a Norwegian violinist and composer who is surrounded by a romantic aura in the history of Norwegian music. He was considered one of the great virtuosos, often compared to Liszt and Paganini. His captivating appearance and demeanor caught the attention of many. He had a perfect physique and a slender figure, with the chest and muscles of a giant developed from his work as a violinist. His expressive eyes radiated both childlike trust and sly suspicion, often characteristic of geniuses.

Early Life and Education

Ole Bull was born on February 5, 1810, into a well-to-do family in Bergen, Norway. He acquired his first violin skills at the Royal Music School in Bergen, where only twelve children were enrolled. At the age of six, Ole began participating in home music-making, playing in quartets. After the Royal School, he did not receive much formal training from violin teachers. He taught himself how to play the violin, picking up folk melodies he heard from wandering musicians. He had a few lessons from Danish teacher Paulsen and then from Swedish teacher Lindholm. In his youth, he faced difficult trials.

Early Career

When Danish King Frederik VI asked Ole Bull who taught him to play, he gave the characteristic response, "I learned from the mountains of Norway." His father, a pharmacist, did not approve of his son's passion for music and sent him to university in Christiania (now Oslo) to study theology after finishing school. However, this endeavor proved futile, and Ole Bull tried his hand at conducting a local music-dramatic society instead. He also participated in the political life of his country during a time of national liberation movement. As a result, he had to leave the country and in 1829, he traveled to Kassel, hoping to meet his idol, renowned violinist L. Spohr. But Spohr received the young Norwegian quite coldly, criticizing his playing and his compositions based on Norwegian melodies as "barbaric." However, Ole Bull did not despair. After traveling through Germany, he returned home and had triumphant success in Bergen and Trondheim, and then went to Paris. Here, he not only performed himself but also had the opportunity to hear Paganini play. This became a turning point in Ole Bull's life. He decided to dedicate himself fully to music and made a promise to achieve perfection. However, his career was almost cut short due to a serious illness. Ole Bull, without friends or acquaintances, was on the verge of perishing when an unknown woman saved him, and soon her daughter became his wife.

Romantic Life and Romanticism

"Ole Bull was a romantic not only in music but also in life, passionate and wilful, carefree and enthusiastic," as noted by L. N. Raaben. His biography, especially the first half of his life, was filled with romantic events. He dueled, hastily hiding afterward, threw himself into the Seine River in a suicide attempt, narrowly escaped death on a steamship caught in ice en route to his hometown of Bergen, and played in the ruins of the Colosseum in Rome. Handsome and tall, Ole Bull, with his Viking appearance, resembled both a typical Nordic person and an Italian. This fiery temperament flowed through his veins and influenced his creative work, which possessed all the qualities of a virtuosic and brilliantly romantic art – wild imagination, vivid instrumentalism, emotional fervor – and his performances were filled with "mysterious" fantastic sounds.

International Success

After recovering from his illness, Ole Bull made his debut in Paris in April of the same year. His concert featured the participation of Chopin and Ernst, which made the appearance of the new violin virtuoso even more remarkable. The following year marked the beginning of his intensive concert career that lasted for many decades. His tours in all the cultural centers of Europe and North America quickly made him a famous and almost legendary figure. Ole Bull's creative activity was astounding – in just 18 months in 1836-1837, he gave 274 concerts! His mastery, beauty and fullness of sound, purity of intonation, brilliant execution of double stops, staccato, and glissando were astonishing and justified comparisons to Paganini himself.

Legacy and Later Life

In 1841, F. Koni wrote, "Ole Bull – the fortunate heir of Paganini – must have stolen the secret from the stingy old man of how to captivate, amaze, and enchant with the power of the bow. The talented miser did not hide his treasure in the grave." Particularly admired by the public was his unique playing technique on all four strings simultaneously, a technique borrowed from Norwegian folk musicians who played the Hardanger fiddle. This gave his style a distinct national charm, especially when Ole Bull performed his own compositions or improvised on Norwegian melodies.

Ole Bull returned to Norway in the summer of 1846 and founded the Norwegian National Theatre in 1850. He tried to give it an original direction, involving folk musicians, violinists, and dancers in the first performances. In 1851, Ole Bull embarked on a tour of South and North America, where he achieved enormous success. His level of skill and the relatively low cultural level of the American audience at that time contributed to his popularity. He later recounted to Fetis with some irony that he gained special popularity with one etude, which he gave an extravagant name, "The Bull Eaten by the Tiger." He returned from the trip with sixty thousand dollars, an enormous sum for that time.

Ole Bull continued to divide his time between Europe and America from 1860 onwards. In the 1870s, as he aged, he no longer performed publicly. In ill health, he returned to Norway. On August 17, 1880, the musician passed away in his estate near Bergen.

The entire nation of Norway mourned his loss. Grieg and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, who both visited Ole Bull's graveside, delivered short speeches in honor of their departed friend. Grieg recognized him as the pride of their country, the one who uplifted their people to the shining peaks of art, and the one who pioneered their young national music. He placed a laurel wreath on his grave on behalf of Norwegian music. Bjørnson expressed how Ole Bull was the greatest event in their nation's life, awakening their belief in their own abilities, which was the greatest gift he could have given them at that time.

Less than a year after his death, a monument was erected in Bergen, Norway, using funds collected by Grieg. Ole Bull remained a great violinist and a great figure in the memory of the Norwegian people.