Ole Bull: A Forgotten Genius

From time to time the world of the violin turns up a truly odd character.  This would be an individual of the highest musical achievement, though perhaps not having a musical family as background.  Such people are often largely self-taught (or perhaps we just don’t know who their teachers may have been), and frequently take no pupils of their own.  They are content to work in their own way, and consider themselves as servants of their art.  And while fame and fortune may be their reward, such was never their original goal.  These individuals seem to stand outside of the flow of history, and might have disappeared from view altogether, if it weren’t for the high quality of their achievement.

    Let me suggest a couple of examples of such people: think of Jacob Stainer, the Austrian violin maker who by the age of eighteen had almost single-handedly created the Austro-Hungarian violin, an instrumental design that stood the test of time for a century.  (We might remember that Stainer managed this feat more than twenty years before Stradivari was even born).  Stainer violins were very highly thought of; in fact both Bach and Mozart owned and played on Stainer violins.  Another truly odd character was one Luigi Tarisio, a Milanese who was born sometime in the seventeen nineties, and who taught himself to play the violin while working as an apprentice carpenter. However, it was not as a carpenter that he distinguished himself, but rather as a collector of fine stringed instruments.  People said of him that he “could smell a rare violin the way the Devil could smell a lost soul”.  He is reputed to have been able to identify not only the maker of an instrument but also the year of manufacture by sight alone.  His was a unique talent, and he will always occupy a niche in the history of the violin.

    I could go on and on with such examples, but it is of Ole Bull that I wish to write today.  Born in Norway in 1810- the same year Chopin was born- Bull was the eldest of child out of a family of ten children, and the only son to boot.  This was indeed an auspicious beginning to the fabulous Norseman’s career.  Although his father was a doctor and not involved in music, his uncle was a ‘cellist who played in a quartet.  This was Ole’s introduction to music, with one of the violinists in the quartet giving him his first lessons.  The turning point for Bull came at the age of twenty-one, when he first heard Paganini in Paris.  Bull settled down in Paris for a prolonged period of practice.  He did not, however, neglect the world around him, and within a few years he had made friends with Chopin, as well as several members of the French and Italian nobilities.  Over the next several decades, Bull travelled extensively in both Europe and the United States, concertizing in virtually every major city on both continents.  Although he met with the greatest success throughout his entire career, he never lost sight of the fact that he was a Norwegian first and foremost. (It was at Bull’s instigation that a statue of Leif Ericsson was erected in the Boston Public Gardens following the Peace Jubilee of 1869.   This monument is in honour of Scandinavian settlement in America).  No matter how much time he spent abroad, Bull always returned to his cottage in Norway whenever he could.  When he died, Bull was buried at Bergen, the town of his birth.  History records that thousands of people- country folk and townsmen alike- travelled to Bergen to pay their respects, filling Bull’s grave to the brim with wreaths and flowers.

    What are we to make, from our modern vantage point, of this many-faceted man’s musical legacy? Throughout his lifetime, Bull was often referred to as “the Paganini of the North”- and we should remember that it was during the nineteenth century that the idea of “musician as rock star” was born- but Bull’s legacy surely warrants a more nuanced appraisal.  First off, we know that Bull was deeply fascinated by the mechanics of the violin, and we have accounts of his many experiments in modifying the physical instrument itself. This desire to improve the sound of the violin through manipulation of individual instruments is consonant with Bull’s practice of using different violins for different types of music.  For example, it is reported that he used a powerful Ruggeri violin for playing the music of Italian Baroque composers, and a gentle Amati for Norwegian folk music (a genre that he often embellished with sets of variations).  The Amati he fitted with an almost flat bridge, allowing for the playing of polyphonic passages.  In this way, Bull looked back to Bach and the polyphonic fugue writing of his solo sonatas.  Indeed, Bull composed full four-voiced, experimental works for his own use, much in the manner of Ferruccio Busoni’s experimental piano works, some five or six decades later. History records that Paganini, the great Genovese melodist, was intrigued by these compositions. We are also told that, although he understood how they were to be played, Paganini lacked the necessary physical strength in his left hand to actually do so.  And so these works remain Bull’s alone.

    Yet, if Bull on the one hand looked back to eighteenth century polyphonic writing, on the other hand his involvement with Norwegian folk song looks forward to the twentieth century’s fascination with the “music of the oral traditions”, as it is now known (think Bela Bartok and his work on Hungarian folk music).  Along with Brahms, who was deeply involved in collecting and arranging German folk music, we might think of Bull as a prototypical musicologist.

    However Bull was first and foremost a performer, and we must now take stock of what we can say about his playing. Well, unfortunately, not much.  As with any other artist who lived before the recording era, all we really have are contemporary, anecdotal reports, all of which stress Bull’s “naturalness” as a player- whatever that might mean.  We may be certain that nothing in his personality could have been considered “effete”, but what we cannot know is whether his rugged, rustic appearance (along with his reputation as a powerful barroom brawler) may have influenced the perception of his playing.  Well, my own guess would be that it probably did.  After all, when it comes to musical performance, appearance counts.

    Finally, what can we say about Ole Bull’s compositions?  Well, first off, Bull was not a symphonic or orchestral composer (Practically all the nineteenth century, big-name composers were pianists, after all).  He has left us a few dozen works, mostly miniatures bearing fanciful, nineteenth century tiles such as “Nocturne”, “Fantasy”, “Melody”, etc. These works are not widely known, though they are highly thought of by those who are familiar with them.  And as is so often the case, the question arises as to whether or not Bull might have become a great composer if he had been less successful as a performer.  Such questions belong in the category of intellectual dead ends. We might as well try to figure out if Beethoven would have become the great composer he did if he had not gone deaf.  Who knows?

    Ole Bull remains as one of violin history’s true originals: largely self-taught, a trusting soul and philanthropist who was, unfortunately, on occasion swindled out of large sums of money. The founder of a Norwegian theatre and general promoter of the arts, an experimenter in the construction of the violin, performer and composer, Bull was a well-rounded and remarkable man.  Although he was of course a Norwegian first and foremost, Ole Bull was also a priceless gift from Scandinavia to the world.