Friday, February 5, 2010

Music of twelve moons

The rather oddly named Ole Bull was born 200 years ago today. He was not, as his name might promise, a Spanish torero, but a virtuoso Norwegian violinist! Incredibly famous in his day he is sometimes called Norway’s first superstar. He was not a diarist, but there are a few rather lovely quotes about him in other people’s diaries, not least those left by Henry Longfellow and his wife.

Bull was born on 5 February 1810 - two centuries ago today - in Bergen, Norway (then part of a union with Sweden). He was a precocious musician, and it is said that by the age of five he could play all the songs his mother played on the violin, and that by nine he was performing solo for the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. After failing at university, he joined the Musical Lyceum, a musical society, and became its director. He also became director of the Theater Orchestra in 1828.

Thereafter, though, he moved to live in Germany and then Paris where he became acquainted with the style of the Italian virtuoso, Niccolò Paganini, and where he performed with Chopin. His fame soon spread, and over the coming decades he would give thousands of concerts across Europe, and in the United States (where he bought land and started the New Norway community). According to Wikipedia, Robert Schumann called Bull among ‘the greatest of all’, and said he was on a level with Paganini for the speed and clarity of his playing. Bull was particularly famed for his improvisations, and the rich tone of his play, and also for promoting Norwegian folk music and culture.

Bull married Alexandrine FĂ©licie Villeminot in 1836 and they had six children, although only two survived him. His wife died in 1862, and Bull then courted and married Sara Chapman Thorp, 40 years his junior, and they had one child. Bull died in 1880, and was a given a spectacular funeral procession. For more information see Wikipedia or

A lot more information about Bull can be obtained online, however, by a visit to Googlebooks and browsing Ole Bull: Norway’s Romantic Musician and Cosmopolitan Patriot written by Einar Ingvald Haugen and Camilla Cai (published by University of Wisconsin Press in 1993). Therein also can be found some diary extracts about Bull.

April 1834 - Count di Rangone writing in his diary about Bull playing in Bologna:

‘There was in his playing a mixture of the bizarre and the poetic, and much of Paganini’s mode of playing. It was astonishing to hear him perform a two-voiced melody in a single stroke of the bow, with pizzicato, trills . . . and harmonics. He distinguished himself in many other ways also. He is an outstanding violinist, and he won spontaneous and ardent applause.’

May 1844 - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writing about Bull after a concert at the Melodeon, Boston:
‘a great violinist’.

- Fanny Longfellow in her diary about the same concert:
‘a new Orpheus, with a soul for a violin. When we drove home, I seemed to see twelve moons instead of one.’

- And Margaret Fuller (another member with Longfellow of the Transcendental School) in her diary about the same concert:
The Mountains of Norway, and the Siciliano and Tarentella were the great pieces. - He played . . . Memories of Havana . . . I do not know whether the piece was fine or not. I soon forgot it, and was borne away into the winged life.’

3 November 1855 - Bull was visiting an old townsman and schoolmate of his, Peder Andersen, who had emigrated to the US and settled in Lowell Massachusetts. Peder’s wife Martha writing about Ole Bull in her diary (as commented on by Haugen and Cai in their biography):
‘He entertained us with a fund of anecdotes and grotesque imitations, and after smoking a cigar, played Carnival of Venice and many Norwegian airs.’ In conversation with her Bull had said that ‘the artist must be a compound of burning lava and of ice; his imagination must be on fire, but his reason must be cool and calm, and no passion must be suffered to interrupt the expression of pure feeling.’ She reported that Bull kept his arms rigid as wood while playing, but after playing he suffered from pain and was physically exhausted. ‘The very presence of an unfriendly person is painful and any jar upon his feelings will cause tears.’

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