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THE LISZT SOCIETY Newsletter No 144 – 2021 Q3

I will continue my series about neglected musicians with a portrait of the once famous Norwegian violinist Ole Bull (1810-1880, born and died in Bergen).

He was one of the greatest violinists and a seminal figure in Norwegian music.

His father hoped that he would study theology, but young Bull received a copy of the Paganini Caprices and decided to be a musician.

After a brief period of study in Copenhagen, he continued to work as an orchestra leader in Christiania (today Oslo) and Bergen.

In 1831-35 Bull travelled to Paris where he had unfortunate incidents, losing his money in casinos and being robbed even of his violin!

In despair he decided to commit suicide by jumping from a bridge on the Seine, but some fishermen rescued him.

As he was very handsome an old French lady, Mrs Villeminot, helped him by giving him a Guarnieri violin and he started to play at various venues.

Bull became acquainted with other musicians including Rossini, Meyerbeer, Liszt and Mendelssohn.

In May 1832 he attended, together with Liszt, concerts of Paganini, becoming fascinated by his playing, his style and his grotesque appearance.

In a letter to Pierre Wolf in Geneva Liszt wrote, “Quel homme, quel violin , quel artiste ! Que de souffrances dans ces quatre cordes!”

He went to Italy and arriving in Bologna met with a fantastic opportunity. The next evening a great concert was to be given in the principal theatre with the Grand Duke of Tuscany in attendance.

Madame Malibran and violinist Charles de Beriot were to perform several pieces but as they didn’t agree with the intended repertoire they refused to play! Isabela Colbran, the wife of Rossini, said that the evening before she passed a narrow street and heard strange tones probably from a violin.

She asked the landlord of the house who was playing and learned that it was a young man from northern Europe. A messenger was duly sent to the house and Bull had the chance to perform before a great public and had a huge success! And so began his fantastic career.

From the account of their meeting it appears that Bull could now play only on his own instrument, the tone of which Malibran preferred to Beriots!

The successful Bull married, in 1836, the granddaughter of Mrs Villeminot with whom he had 6 children (only 3 survived to adulthood).

Berlioz predicted a great future for him and he started tours in Great Britain (247 concerts in 10 months).

In 1837-38 he held concerts in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Finland, and Norway.

King Carl Johan made Bull a Knight of the Order of Vasa, and Bull returned to Norway as a prince.

In 1839-40 there were new concert tours in Germany, Austria and Hungary, England, Ireland and Scotland. Bull performed with Franz Liszt and appeared in the Rhine valley and southern Germany.

In London Bull played Beethoven’s Kreutzer sonata with Liszt at a Philharmonic Society concert. The family moved to Leipzig where they become friends with the couples Mendelssohn and Schumann.

The collaboration with Liszt continued: in May/June 1840, when Liszt visited Lady Blessington, count d’Orsay and Moscheles, they gave concerts in London together with Bull. Before sailing for America he arranged for the publication of some of his compositions by Schubert in Hamburg, including the Bellini variations approved by Liszt.

In 1843-45 Bull travelled across the Americas, from Canada in the north, to Cuba in the south. Bull composed Recuerdos de Habana in Cuba. In 1848 Bull participated to the events of the Revolution, hoping to get support from France for Norway’s independence.

In 1852-1857 Bull travelled to America to establish the colony of OLEANA in Pennsylvania for Scandinavian immigrants. He lost a huge amount of money!

The colonial project come to an end, Ole Bull sells back the land but is hounded by creditors, imprisoned and involved in several court cases. He crosses the Panama Straits, went to California, contracts yellow fever, becomes opera director in New York and catches malaria on a concert tour of the Mid-West.

His wife then sends their son Alexander to bring his father back to Norway. In 1857-1862 Bull fired the executive board at the theatre in Bergen and appoints the 23-year-old Ibsen on a five year contract with the stipulation that he write a play each year! He then meets the 14-years old Edvard Grieg (his relative), gives concerts in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Sweden. (Ibsen Peer Gynt owes not a little to him!)

Bull’s wife is readmitted to a mental asylum in 1859 and dies in Christiania in 1862. Bull’s son, Thorvald, falls to death from a ship’s mast and is buried in Malta.

In 1862-1867 Bull established a music Academy as well a Danish and Norwegian theatre in Christiania, gives concerts in Germany, Russia, Poland and Prague.

In 1867-71 he had a new trip in America with concerts on the east coast to California, receives a laurel wreath in gold. He was guest of the Wisconsin senator Thorpe and, being now 60-years old, married their 20-years daughter Sara.

In 1873-74 Bull is forced to sell his house in Bergen to his father-in-law and moves with the Thorpe family to Menton, in the south of France. Bull gave a concert in Florence then escapes from the Thorpe family to Rome.

His wife Sara and their daughter Olea, move with the rest of the family back to the USA and do not see Ole Bull for 2 years. In Rome Bull met his old friends Franz Liszt and Bjornson.

In 1875-77 Bull continued his virtuoso career giving 70 concerts in Germany, Sweden and Denmark. Bull climbed the Keops Pyramid on his 66th birthday. He becomes reconciled with Sara and alternated concerts in the USA and the whole of Europe. Right up to the end of his life he gave between 50 to 100 concerts a year. In 1879 he still managed to draw a full house in venues such as Vienna’s Musikverein or Steinway Hall in New York and is received with ovations by his audience.

Ole Bull passed away to the sound of Mozart’s Requiem at his home near Bergen on 19 August 1880. His funeral in Bergen on 23 August surpasses anything Norway had ever previously seen in terms of splendor and numbers, a tribute to a popular hero.

Some opinions of his contemporaries might be of interest: Liszt was a friend, musical promoter and benefactor to many composers of his time, including Ole Bull and Edvard Grieg.

Schumann regarded Bull as at least Paganini’s equal, and in technical feats, such as playing four parts at once, in a class by himself.

Edvard Grieg: “When his right hand touched mine, it was as if an electric shock ran through me”.

Bjornstjerne Bjornson: “This is the greatest man I have ever been acquainted with, ...whenever he opens a door, the sun enters”.

Rikard Nordraak: “When one has stood face to face with him, one has felt the presence of God”.



Larousse du XX-eme Siècle Volume 1

The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians, Volume 3

Franz Liszt by Ernst Burger (French translation by Fayard)

Ole Bull - Violin Concertos by Annar Folleso [booklet]


Constantin Erbiceanu