The Real Ole Bull

By Aubertine Woodward Moore

In Philadelphia, late in the seventies, I first saw and heard Ole Bull. My vivid recollections of the man and his music make me desire to part the tissue of romance that has been woven about him and reveal the real Ole Bull, a personality well deserving attention.

It had come in my way to hear him much discussed by musicians. His art has been pronounced artifice, his dazzling effects, charlatanism, and numerous incidents cited to illustrate his lack of serious musicianship, among these his displeasure with a certain orchestra that failed to grasp his intentions, when these were so inadequately indicated the composer along could have interpreted them. On the other hand, I had heard the most extravagant praise of his colossal technique, superb tone, unrivalled staccato, splendid power of singing on the violin, and marvelous control is his audiences.

Ole Bull’s Distinguished Personality

When circumstances finally let me to meet Ole Bull, all unfavorable impressions I had in regard to him were speedily dissipated in the presence of this distinguished looking gentleman with his cordial, kindly words and manner, his benevolent, paternal smile, and his air of high breeding combined with the simplicity that belongs to it. His invitation to go with him and his wife to his concert at the Academy of music I gladly accepted.

Every seat in the body of the house being taken, one of the stage chairs was assigned to me. With elastic step Ole Bull passed me on his way to the front, where he stood, lithe and erect, bowing right and left, with princely graciousness, his face beaming. There was no reminder of his almost seventy years in the manly grace of his carriage and pose, nor in the vigor and delicacy of his stroke, as, after bending his ear to the strings he softly plucked, his violin nestled in its place, and he set in motion the bow which was so much heavier than other bows that powerful muscles were needed to wield it.

Some Forgivable Faults

On his program was a concerto by Nardini, Tartini’s favorite pupil, a graceful composition, tinged with exaggerated sentimentalism. Ole Bull gave it a coloring of his own, and I remember being impressed by his singing tone, as well as noticing occasional lacks of purity of intonation. The audience realized no flaws; both hearing and vision were bewitched by the tall, nobly built virtuoso, as he stood bravely at work, his large, blue eyes now scintillating sparks of glowing light, now half, now entirely closed, his sensitive face illustrating every nuance of the music, his silvery locks falling about his splendid head. Over his own compositions on the program he cast so dazzling a glamor I could not analyze them until later.

Ending an encore piece, a Norwegian melody, he held his bow over the strings long after the song had ceased. While the house still rang with applause, he softly whispered, as he passed me: “Did not I play it finely on the public?” Soon comments were heard on the refinement of an ear that could distinguish tones inaudible to others. One imaginative person thought she had detected an ethereal murmur to the last, admitting that she might have been influenced by the impression of angelic song mirrored on the artist’s face. How Ole Bull laughed when I repeated this to him! If her were a charlatan, it was certainly of an innocent type.

In the autumn of 1879 I met Ole Bull again, in Madison, Wis., where I had gone in the quest of health, and where he was passing some weeks in his Madison home, a beautiful place on the shores of Lake Mendota, later purchased by the State as a gubernatorial residence. What is now the Governor’s drawing room was the music room of Ole Bull, modeled by him according to correct acoustic principles.

Here it was my good fortune to accompany on the piano this artist from Norseland. He had been told I could read notes readily, he said, and he urged me to his Chickering Concert Grand the first time I entered his house. We played then and often afterward his favorite Mozart sonatas for piano and violin, one of them the A major, six-eight time signature, Allegro molto, and an Andante grazioso theme with variations. He cherished profound reverence for Mozart, declared there could be no loftier expression of human thought and aspiration than in his works, and had been complimented by the master’s widow for his thorough understanding of her husband’s compositions. I certainly never heard a Mozart sonata, especially the slow movements, played better than by him.

Ole Bull’s Lack of Respect for Beethoven

With Beethoven he was less happy. Once when we tried Op. 30, No. 3, he skipped passages, and breaking in at the wrong place interrupted piano solo phrases. In Mozart he would not even have variations for piano alone omitted, calling every note I cried “pray consider Mr. Beethoven.” He laughed “Good! You are right to call me to account. Let us try again.” Soon he laid down his bow. He was not in the mood for Beethoven he said.

It has been generally admitted that he rarely succeeded with this master. Once he played the Kreutzer Sonata with Liszt, at a London Philharmonic Society concert, and was rewarded with a piece of plate, although a diversity of opinion existed among critics in regard to the performance. If he managed to pull through satisfactorily, it was due to Liszt’s influence on his impressionable nature. He liked to tell of christening the Cellini Gaspar da Salo violin by playing the Kreutzer with Mendelssohn in Liszt’s presence; how well he did not mention.

Ole Bull’s Favorite Violins

Moving to and fro, in his music room, with springing step, every fibre of his being alive with enthusiasm, he introduced to me the weird, plaintive, strong and soulful folk songs and dances of his native land, now woven together and blended with his own original melodies, some of them improvised for the occasion, others composed earlier and including his beautiful, popularly known Chalet Girl’s Sunday. Sometimes his violin was unaccompanied, sometimes he had me supply a piano accompaniment, often indicating the chords he wished.

He used the Zoller Gaspar da Salo, his chief concert violin after 1862. It had admirable singing qualities, but was inferior in nobility of volume to the Josef Guarnerius del Gesu, labeled 1742, with which he had scored the triumphs of quarter of a century before presenting it to his son Alexander. The latter frequently had it at my home, and brought out its tone with fine effect in his father’s favorite music.

Alexander Bull was Ole Bull’s son by his first wife, a French lady, and was very sensitive to his father’s magnetism. As a child he was so bewitched at hearing this adored parent play Stradella’s Prayer, he burst into song, bringing upon himself a severe rebuke. He next heard his father in Ablany, N. Y., after the Oleana disaster, in Paganini’s Witches’ Dance, and was grievously disappointed. The tones of a single violin were poor compared with the bewildering orchestral effects the fame of Ole Bull had led him to expect.

Ole Bull’s Readiness in Emergencies

“Some years later, at the Bergen National Theatre he had founded,” so Alexander wrote to me, “I heard father play the same composition. The witches and all their paraphernalia seemed to surround him, as his long hair fell over his face. When I thanked him, he gazed at me with a haggard, far off look.” Alexander remembers listening to his father, in 1878, play Paganini’s second concerto, when, during the Andanta, the E string snapped, but Ole Bull, ever ready for an emergency, continued to climb on the A string to the admiration of all who had noticed the mishap. “At that period,” wrote Alexander, “father gave the impression of one who had returned to earth after a long absence, and was striving to give utterance to his strange experiences.”

A typical representative of the romantic virtuoso period, Ole Bull used to say he wished to raise a curtain, when he played, that his hearers might view what was in his mind. Three influences molded his genius:

  1. Love of fatherland
  2. Italian music with its ingratiating melodies and flimsy architecture, much en vogue, in the early thirties, when the young Norwegian genius first went abroad, ripe for decisive impressions
  3. The powerful individuality of Paganini, which after they met in 1839, led Ole Bull to practice the more remote and singular difficulties of the violin, until he became a second whimsical wizard of the bow.

Ole Bull’s Style

He acquired a style peculiarly his own. By means of a level bridge and flat finger board, he gained an original way of playing four separate voices at once. His large bow was one of the secrets of his staccato which critics unhesitatingly extolled. Apart from certain songs, his compositions lacked structure, were never fully written out an depended on his warm, noble cantabile and his magnetism for success. His genuinely Italian Mother’s Prayer, his Norwegian and other compositions, he played with convincing skill.

Although able to do pretty much as he pleased with his violin, being a child of moods, his uncurbed spirit only moved him to undertake what struck his fancy. The newer German tendency did not attract him. Beethoven remained to him, for the most part, an unknown quantity, the Mendelssohn violin concerto found no place on his programs, and Wagner was positively repugnant to him. He could not quite forgive his son Alexander for enjoying Lohengrin.

In the present day of giant virtuosi, this man of Norway could not be called the world’s master violinist, nor was it as such he won his place in the hearts of his countrymen everywhere. It is as the patriot, the seer, the father of what his country has achieved that he is and ever will be honored.

Born February 5, 1810, he grew up with the growth of Norway under its independent constitution, and became saturated with the idea of her glorious past, present and future. When he earned a place in the world, he never let it be forgotten that he was a representative of Norway. Wherever he went he talked of the land, its gifted people, majestic scenery and health giving climate, told its spicy folk tales, played its stirring music, and turned the world’s attention to his sturdy little fatherland.

Much of the promise he say has been fulfilled, and the genius of his beloved home land has been recognized.