Norwegian violinist and composer Ole Bull (1810-1880) was among the most celebrated musicians of the nineteenth century, a violin star who toured the world.
Bull was especially popular in the United States, which he visited multiple times. He lived for several long stretches in America, married an American woman, and attempted in the early 1850s to set up a Norwegian-American utopian community in the mountains of Pennsylvania. He was a larger-than-life figure of the kind American audiences have always admired. Yet Bull's fame was by no means limited to the United States. In Norway itself he was a key supporter of cultural and political nationalism, and he directly inspired two of Norway's greatest artists, playwright Henrik Ibsen and composer Edvard Grieg. Bull toured the rest of Europe as well. Opinions differed about his wild, unorthodox style of playing the violin, but in many countries he remained a household name for decades.
Tried to Use Yardstick as Bow
Ole Bornemann Bull was born in an apothecary shop, his family's business, on February 5, 1810, in Bergen, Norway. Several of his relatives were amateur musicians who came together to form a string quartet. When Bull's uncle Jens noticed that five-year-old Ole was imitating the violinists in the quartet by sawing on a small plank of wood with a yardstick, he gave his nephew his first 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.
Bull had no use for his Latin studies. One of his teachers, according to Bull biographer Einar Haugen, shouted in frustration: “Take hold of your fiddle, Ole. Don't waste your time here.” A subsequent tutor fared even worse, as Bull and a group of classmates physically attacked him before being restrained by a maid wielding a set of fire tongs. 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. By that time, however, he was already a fearsomely talented violinist. When he was 14 he had persuaded a grandmother to buy him printed copies of the Caprices of Niccolò Paganini—works that the great violinist had written for himself. 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. He met and befriended the poet Henrik Wergeland, a writer and agitator for the cause of Norway as a distinct nation with its own literature and culture. After centuries of Danish control, Norway had been placed under the control of the Swedish crown as the map of Europe was redrawn in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. Wergeland's ideas made a deep impact on Bull. After an initial foray to Copenhagen, Denmark, Bull headed for Paris in 1831 to launch his international career. With him he took a Hardanger fiddle, an unusual Norwegian folk instrument with features of both a violin and a hurdy-gurdy. Although never trained as a composer, he began to write music that evoked Norwegian folk airs. He filed down the bridge on his violin so that he could sound all four of its strings at the same time, producing an extremely unusual sound.
In 1832 Bull rented a room with a Madame Villeminot. Troubled with either poor health or hypochondria (or perhaps both) for much of his life, he took to his bed for a time and was nursed by his landlady's daughter, Félicie. In 1836 the two would marry and go on to raise five children. Bull heard his idol, Paganini, play a concert, and correctly concluded that an opening existed for a successor to the great Italian, but as of the early 1830s his talent was not yet equal to his ambitions. Bull gave his first concert in Paris in 1833. Parisian critics treated the charismatic but undisciplined Bull as a kind of noble savage, but he began to gain admirers such as the critic Jules Janin and the great soprano Maria Malibran, whom he followed on tour in Italy in 1834. When she saw that one of her performances had moved him to tears, she stuck her tongue out at him. The violinist asked why, and Malibran replied, according an early Bull biography cited by Haugen, “It would have been fine if I too had burst into tears.”
By the end of 1835 Bull had become a major star in Paris, with the likes of painter Eugène Delacroix, author Eugène Scribe, and even king Louis-Philippe I attending his concerts. Positive reviews of his work flowed back to Norway and made him famous for the first time in his homeland. Bull extended his touring to England in 1836, impressing a recalcitrant orchestra with his rendition of a four-part arrangement of “God Save the King,” in which he played all four parts simultaneously. In the year 1837 alone, Bull gave 274 concerts. He installed his family in Copenhagen and set off to conquer the rest of continental Europe. By 1838 he had reached Moscow, Russia, and the next several years saw successful Bull tours in Sweden and Eastern Europe. In 1840 he performed Beethoven's “Kreutzer” Sonata for violin and piano with Franz Liszt as his accompanist.
He also performed in the great German-speaking musical capitals of Berlin and Vienna (both in 1839), and only here was his success less than total. In those citadels of abstract music, where the symphonies of Beethoven and his successors were taken to be the pinnacle of musical art, Bull's showmanship was something of a liability, as showmanship had been a liability for Paganini a generation before. The opinions of critics mattered little to the general public, however, and Bull made several more tours of Germany and Austria during his lifetime.
In 1843, feted by a farewell poem from Wergeland, Bull set sail for the United States. He was not the first European artist to mount an American tour, but the scope of his activities in America (and also in Cuba and Quebec) exceeded anything that had been seen up to that point, and set the stage for the publicity extravaganza that later accompanied the arrival of Swedish opera star Jenny Lind. At the conclusion of one of his pieces, reported the New York Herald (according to Haugen), “the very musicians in the orchestra flung down their instruments and stamped and applauded like madmen.” Bull's exploits as he traveled around the country gave rise to a variety of widely repeated stories, one of which held that he had been the victim of an attempted robbery on a Mississippi River paddleboat—but had thrown the robber overboard. He attracted the attention of writers such as Lydia Maria Child and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who based a character in one of his books (1863's Tales of a Wayside Inn) on Bull; Denmark's Hans Christian Andersen, France's George Sand, and other European writers would later do the same.
The requirements of touring had by this time caused Bull to try his hand at composition once again, and some of the pieces that became the most famous within his lifetime were written during his first stay in America. Niagara commemorated his visit to Niagara Falls, which he considered the most beautiful falls in the world, but Solitude of the Prairies was composed without benefit of an actual prairie visit. Later, while visiting a town in Minnesota, Bull decided that he should try to see a prairie and set out on horseback, but he quickly became lost and had to seek shelter in a nearby inn. Mostly his music was for violin and orchestra (including at least once full-scale violin concerto) or violin and piano, although he wrote several songs. Most of his compositions were forgotten (and many were destroyed) after his death, but there have been periodic attempts to revive them; violinist John Thomson told Chuck Haga of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that “his music deserves to be better known. It's beautiful—a combination of Norwegian folk style and the Italian style he learned from Paganini.”
Fostered Norwegian Theater
At the end of 1845 Bull left New York and plunged into a fresh round of European touring that took him as far afield as Algiers in North Africa and the Balearic Islands of Spain. The revolutions of 1848 found him in Paris and inspired in him a fresh burst of Norwegian nationalism. He returned to Norway hoping to further the cause of Norwegian literature, and established a new Norwegian National Theater in Bergen, where he employed the young Henrik Ibsen as an administrator. Ibsen later modeled the title character in one of his greatest plays, Peer Gynt, on Bull, and Norway's greatest composer, Edvard Grieg, was also a Bull admirer and furnished Ibsen's play with a musical score. The poet Bj⊘rnstjerne Bj⊘rnson was also a Bull employee.
In 1852 Bull returned to New York to begin the second of an eventual five American tours. Soon, however, he was throwing his energy into a new project, a utopian community named New Norway. One of its four small communities was named Oleana. Bull purchased over 10,000 acres in a wooded area in northern Pennsylvania, inviting Norwegian immigrants to set up small farms as part of a larger cooperatively run organization. A few dozen Norwegian families took him up on his offer, but the venture was inadequately capitalized, and Bull was swindled by the original landowner—the only easily tillable farmland on the plot was excluded from the sale by an obscure provision in the deed. Within a few years the community had failed, and the Norwegians moved on to newer centers of settlement in the upper Midwest. A partially completed castle Bull had planned still stands today (although it suffered heavy fire damage in 1923) and is used as a forest ranger's residence at Pennsylvania's Ole Bull State Park.
For much of the rest of his life Bull divided his time between Norway and America, where, although newer virtuosi had come on the scene, he still commanded an enthusiastic following. Félicie died in 1862, and eight years later he married Sara Thorp of Madison, Wisconsin, whom he had met on an 1869 tour. The couple had one daughter. They separated for some time after a quarrel in the 1870s, and Bull purchased a Norwegian island, Lys⊘en, in 1872. He constructed an elaborate villa that displayed a hodgepodge of architectural features including an onion dome. Bull and Sara reunited after she translated a Norwegian novel into English as a peace offering, and the couple lived in Boston for several years in the 1870s. Bull toured indefatigably, and he never lost his gift for public relations. In 1876 he climbed with his violin to the top of the Cheops Pyramid in Egypt and played a concert to the skies. Suffering from cancer, he played his one of his last concerts in Chicago in May of 1880. He died at his home on Lys⊘en on August 17, 1880, and was buried in Bergen.
Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians, centennial ed., Nicolas Slonimsky, editor emeritus, Schirmer, 2001.
Haugen, Einar, and Camilla Cai, Ole Bull: Norway's Romantic Musician and Cosmopolitan Patriot, University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), October 16, 2000.
“Ole Bull's New Norway,” Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/ppet/olebull/page1.asp?secid=31 (January 14, 2008).
“Remembering Ole Bull's Dream,” Norway: The Official Site in the United States, http://www.norway.org/News/archive/2002/200204bull.htm (January 14, 2008).
"Bull, Ole." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bull-ole
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Bull, Ole (Bornemann)
"Bull, Ole (Bornemann)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/bull-ole-bornemann
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Bull, Ole Bornemann
Ole Bornemann Bull (ō´lə bōr´nəmän bōōl), 1810–80, Norwegian violinist. After his debut in Paris (1832) he toured in Europe and in the United States, playing mainly his own compositions and Norwegian folk music. He founded a theater for national drama at Bergen (1849), and in 1852 he attempted to found a Norwegian settlement in Pennsylvania.
See biography by M. Smith (1943, repr. 1973).
"Bull, Ole Bornemann." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bull-ole-bornemann
"Bull, Ole Bornemann." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved July 21, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bull-ole-bornemann