Interview given to ‘Bergens Tidende’ 21 5 15
You have been studying Ole Bull for some time. How did it all start? And how have you been working on this project?
My interest in Ole Bull, began 9 years ago, when I was giving a lot of performances of music by Niccolo Paganini and his contemporaries, This involved concerts and research in Italy, the USA and the UK. I was given the very rare opportunity to play Paganini’s violin in Genoa, and later in London. I got more and more interested in Ole Bull during this period, especially as my wife, the writer Malene Skaerved, was researching H C Andersen letters and journals, where Bull appears a lot. So I started thinking about Bull, as an ideal figure for me as a musician. Then, five years ago, at a party in Denmark, my old friend Anders Beyer had the inspiration to hand me a biography of Bull from his bookshelf. I was hooked! So then he came to Bergen and that opened the possibility to work with the wonderful experts at Lysoen, and the museums and Libraries in Bergen. This led to concerts last year at the Festival, recreating the ‘salon’ atmosphere of Bull’s more intimate concerts.
What fascinates you about Ole Bull?
So many things. But mainly the thing which fascinated Longfellow, Andersen, and Beecher Stowe, that here was a true Musical Pioneer, who believed, and showed that the violin gave him a bridge, a means to go out in the world and as he put it ‘bring his spark to a flame’. His energy, his belief in music and people, led him to be an internationalist and patriot (without that being a patriot), a true musical traveller, giving concerts in the USA in the ‘Old West’, an innovator in the design of violins (and pianos) and of course, a torch bearer for folk music.
What is your favorite piece by Ole Bull?
No question; a tiny ‘A Capriccio’which he wrote in an autograph book in London in 1837, it’s passionate, full of the musical language the landscape which he loved, and ends with a fantastic firework of a scale, the whole length of the violin, 49 notes in one bow.
Can you tell me why the 1647 Amati violin is so special?
If you look at the embroidered violin case at Lysoen, it reads ‘Joseph Guarnerius 1832’, and ‘Niccolo Amati 1647’. When I first saw this (and played the Guarnerius there) I was intrigued by the possibility of the missing Amati. I knew that, when he bought this violin, he described it as his ‘pearl’. I also had a suspicion that it was a violin which he used for salon events, for the intimate performances of improvisations which he famously gave in small venues and dinners. He famously loved Gaspar da Salo violins, such as the one in the museum in Bergen. But this missing ‘pearl’ intrigued me. But it was apparently not in evidence.
The violin itself, is by the greatest of the Amati Family, Niccolo (sometimes he spelt it Nicola), the teacher of Antonio Stradivari. Just from a visual point of view, it is exquisite, and in astonishingly fine condition for a violin which is nearly 170 years old!
How did you get Ole Bulls violin?
I was sitting at breakfast in New York, this winter, and an E mail appeared from the owner, asking if I was interested in seeing it! This was magical, and a month later, I held it in my hands for the first time. It is, without question, one of the most beautiful violins I have ever held, and the sound, is very very special. This is just my personal opinion, but it gives me a hint of the purity, the directness, which Bull seemed to be hunting, a tiniest glimpse of his rich voice. So I have the opportunity to borrow it, to record on it, to bring it here, and to continue the exploration of this man who fascinates me, as a soloist myself.
Where has the violin been between 1880 and now?
The violin was owned by Sarah Bull (nee Thorpe) after his death, until she died in at the beginning of the 20th Century. Then it went, for many decades, into a bank vault in Boston. In the past three decades, it has been owned by a private collector.
Is this the first time that is has been to Lysøen after the death of Ole Bull?
This is the first time that it has been to Norway since he died! It is going to meet the case that bull mad for it!
Can you describe how it feels to play on this violin?
I have been lucky, playing violins which have been owned by the great players of the past-Paganini, Joachim, Viotti, and now Bull. Two weeks ago I recorded a disc of his small solo pieces, ‘Guitar Serenade’, Hallinger and Sprindandser, and more, as well as pieces written for him. The violin is like a teacher. And don’t forget, it’s not just Bull’s voice, that I seeking, but everything else the violin can teach-it has a fantastic provenance. In 1827, Kin George IV of Britain tried to buy it, but was outbid!
How does it feel to bring the violin back to Lysøen?
I don’t know yet!! All I can say, is tht it is a great honour. I have been profoundly moved in the past three years, how Bergen has welcomed this British violnist in to explore such an important figure for Norway. I am very conscious of the fact that this is sacred ground, in many ways, and am grateful of the opportunity to learn and discover, which the wonderful community there has given me!
Ole Bull-Adagio ‘Aurora’ Peter Sheppard Skaerved on Ole Bull’s 1848 Vuillaume Violin, Roderick Chadwick-Piano, Lysoen Rehearsal Recording 30th May 2014
29th May 2014
Upon arriving in Bergen, I decided to check something which had struck me on engravings and photographs. Bull was born on the 5th February in the chemist’s shop owned by his family, ‘Svaneapoteket’ (the Swan Apothecary).
This wood-framed building (parts of which dated back to 1595) burnt down in the catastrophic fire of the 15-16th January 1916. Looking at the photographs of the building which replaced it, re-orienting the entrance to the corner, cut in the ‘Copenhagen-manner’ to save space whilst allowing large vehicles to take the corner, it struck me that it appeared that the new building re-used the only part of the building which seems to have survived-what appears to be a granite door way and the bronze swan which gave the building its name. It still is the ‘Swan Apothecary’, and when I wandered over there upon arriving this evening, this impression was confirmed. The style of the stone cutting and design of the doorway is different from the rest of the building, which is very much in the style of the post-war buildings in Bergen. And, I am more of the opinion that the Swan appears to be of 18th Century ilk. This, may be the very bird under which he walked every day of his young life.
But this is the reason that I have come, as portrayed in the spectacular statue by Sinding, under my window tonight.
Ole Bull-Sæterjentens Søndag (Arr.Johann Svendsen)
Live in Dover. Maison Dieu (Town Hall) 11 October 2o13
Longbow (Peter Sheppard Skaerved, Aisha Orazbayeva, Tanya Sweiry, Mihailo Trandafilovski, Shulah Olive, Alice Barron, Annabelle Berthome Reynolds, Preetha Narayanan, Morgan Goff, Diana Mathews, Val Wellbanks, Evie Heyde, Rachel Meerloo)(Recorded and engineered by Colin Still-Optic Nerve Productions)
30th May 2014 Bergen
This morning, practising Ole Bull in the astonishing Nordic light, I find that his conversations with Longfellow are on my mind.Longfellow wrote to Sarah Bull: “His presence in a room filled it with Sunshine.’ (Camb.Mass. 16 5 1881) Here’s his unmistakable figure on the front page of ‘Tales of a Wayside inn’, in which he appears as ‘the blue-eyed Norseman’.
I can feel that tomorrow’s concert is going to lean towards America. Last year, I found myself on the road on the route taken by Ole Bull to Williamsport, PA. This small town, now better know as as the headquarters of Little League Baseball, contained the first ‘Milliaonaire’s Row’. One of them, a shrewd (to put it midly) businessman, Cowan, sold Bull the land in Potter County for his disastrous colony. Here’s a bizarre account of Bull’s appearance in Williamsport, in 1854, which gives more than a hint that Cowan hardly bothered to conceal his shenanigans:
After the first stretch of practice. I walked the 100 metres the museum next door with one purpose in mind, to spend time with Bull’s miraculous Gaspar da Salo. This is perhaps the only one of the world’s greatest instruments which is kept in a completely unsuitable late-19th century vitrine. This has two brass plates, one of which, on the back, informs us of the conditions under which it was bequeathed to the city.The result is, I am afraid, that the violin is an a sorry condition. It’s clear that issues of taking it in and out of the alarming clamp in which it is held, have taken their toll. Indeed, since I last looked closely at it last year, some fresh scrapes have appeared on the belly. This is in marked contrast to the astonished condition in which Bull preserved this miraculous violin, which survived his accident on the Ohio River in 1868 LINK. The corners are extraordinarily sharp, and there’s no damage on the bouts on the bow side, which is amazing. There’s a horrible botch job on the front, where a long scratch has apparently been disguised with red pigment. On the positive side, some of the wear is very informative. A close examination of the belly forward of the bridge (modern-astonishingly, it is not fitted correctly), which reveals that a narrower bridge was used at some point, with a resulting shorter string length.
It’s now generally agreed that that the attribution of the highly decorated scroll to Benvenuto Cellini (1500 – 1571) is apocryphal. However, it should not be forgotten that Cellini was the son of an true ‘luthier’ (a lute maker-the term became the catch-all for maker of string instruments later), and considered becoming a musician. The scroll has something of the erotic punch, even the violence, which one associates with Cellini as artist and man, so the attribution is not suprising. Sarah Bull referred to the violin as the Cellini-da Salo violin, presumably putting the artists in order of renown.
This outrageously decorated head (s) also had inbuilt protection. A close examination of the belly of the figure on the reverse indicates that it has a gold button, so that the decoration will not wear when the violin is laid down.
The inlaid fingerboard may actually contain some of the original marquetry. What is clear up close, is that, when it was extended to 19th century requirements, the new section extended the design that was already there-a join is clearly visible 3/5 of the way ‘up’
(there’s no sense of whether Bull had this done or it had had been done earlier-Paganini ‘modernised’ his fingerboard in Vienna in 1826). Whilst Paganini TALKED a long about his ‘Cannon’, Bull showed his off, had publicity engravings made holding it. Curiously, there are no photographs of him with it. I suspect that (especially judging its condition), Bull was not willing to risk touring with it after the near run thing on the Ohio River in 1868.
Evening, same day
Back after an absolutely inspiring afternoon and evening of rehearsal and discovery at Lysøen, Ole Bull’s house and island. Here’s a link to my first visit to this enchanted place, 20 months ago. LINK
To start with, and an no particular order, here is Bull version of ‘Fanitulla’ LINK for more on this and my imagining of his 1868 Kentucky Backwoods performance of Shade ‘Fiddler’ Slone’s ‘The Brushy Fork of John’s Creek’ LINK for more info, played on Bull’s wonderful 1732 Joseph Guarneri, tuned AEae
Ole Bull-Fanitulla & Shade ‘Fiddler’ Slone- the Brush Fork of John’s Creek’ (Workshop recording) Peter Sheppard Skaerved 30-3-14 Lysøen
Vocal music, sung and transcribed, filled Bull’s salon music making. He played Charles Gounod’s Ave Maria again and again. The last music which he played was by Italian cellist-composer Gaetano Braga (1829-1907), widely known as ‘Angel Serenade’, Bull’s career had begun in Milan and Bologna, so this was very appropriate. There’s a fascinating ‘violin’-link, of which Bull was unaware. Braga was a student of Gaetano Ciandelli, who studied the cello with Niccolò Paganini, Bull’s inspiration.
Gaetano Braga-Angel Serenade. Peter Sheppard Skaerved & Roderick Chadwick. Workshop Recording 30 5 14
Re-imagining the ‘American Fantasy’
On 30th June 1857, Ole Bull gave a ‘Grand Farewell Concert’ in Madison, Wisconsin, a town which would later become one of his homes. The concert playbill promises a Fantasia on American Airs, including ‘Jordan’s a Hard Road to Travel’, ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’, ‘Arkansas Traveler’, ‘Home Sweet Home’ and ‘Yankee Doodle’ (A performance in Bloomington, Indiana in 1856 also included ‘Hazel Dell’). This piece is lost, except one section preserved here, Bull’s version of ‘Arkansas Traveler’, by Colonel Sanford C. ‘Sandy’ Faulkner (1806–1874). I have reimagined something of style of this lost piece, using fragmentary material Bull left in ‘salon’ albums, which I found in the British Library London and the Pierpont Morgan Library New York City. As the basis for the transcriptions, I used editions (some published by his American colleagues) available to Bull on his first visits, mainly found in the Library of Congress, Washington DC. The technical devices, and ‘crowd-pleasing’ tricks were mostly suggested to me by the material which I found here at Lysøen, but my aim was to evoke the particular ‘folk-virtuoso’ vernacular which Bull developed to win over tough rural American audiences.
Ole Bull/Peter Sheppard Sk?rved-American Fantasy on ‘The Hazel Dell’ ‘Home Sweet Home’ ‘Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel’ ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’, & including Ole Bull-Arkansas-the way it wouldn’t do, -the way it would do, Ole Bull ‘A Cappriccio ma moderato’( London 1837(Horsley Notebook London), and Ole Bull-‘Ganz’ Capriccio (Berlin 1839)
Franz Clement-‘Étude’ (dedicated to Ole Bull (1839? Vienna) Peter Sheppard Skaerved (Workshop Recording 30 5 14)
Franz Clement (1780-1842) is best known as the dedicatee of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, which he premiered in 1806. He was one of the greatest talents of early 19th Century Vienna, and directed the premiere of the Eroica Symphony. By the time Bull met him, he was almost forgotten; there is no documentation of their encounter, nor that Bull played this piece, is kept today in the Bergen Public Library. Link to Peter playing more Clement!
Ole Bull and Mozart, husband and wife
We begin the concert(s) tomorrow with Mozart-his radiant G Major Sonata K301.
One of the Bull’s greatest treasures was a fragment of Mozart manuscript given to him by the composer’s widow, Constanze (1862-1842) after a benefit concert in Salzburg in 1839. He later hung it on the wall of the Lysøen Music Room. Mozart was in many ways Bull’s ideal. He loved to play his sonatas, and inscribed the first collected edition to his wife, Sara. Working through the materials at Lysøen, I discovered, in his handwriting, the opening of Mozart’s C Major Quartet K465 ‘Dissonance’, written out in a piano score, to understand the harmonies (the full quartet score was not available in Bull’s lifetime).
One of the great discoveries of the day, the double-case which went into the Ohio river with Bull, in 1868. We would later find a letter which referred to problems with the varnish on Bull’s ornamented Gaspar da Salo, the result of the dye from the lining of the case getting wet and staining the violin.
Concert day, and more-much more!
The wonderful thing about playing concerts at Lysoen, is that the audience has to arrived by boat. Some take the Ferry (‘Ole Bull’) over from the nearby Buane Kai, and others come in on the shuttle from Bergen.
The atmosphere when this most beautiful of music rooms is filled for a concert is quite unique, and the audience respond extremely actively, particularly to his music, so ‘up close’.
As ever, an extraordinary pleasure to play with Roderick Chadwick, who also ensured that I did not melt under the pressure of premiering ‘my’ ‘American Fantasy’. Here we are after playing, with Bull’s ‘del Gesu’ and ‘Vuillaume’; this was a concert on three violins…
We were honoured by the presence of Ole Bull’s descendants, including his great-granddaughther, Olea. She was very excited by the concert, and especially the discoveries and reconstructions I had made. This led to a mind-opening invitatino later in the day!
I played the concert on Bull’s 1732 Del Gesu and the high-ribbed Vuillaume. Vuillaume’s named filled the air later in the evening, as letters written by him to Vuilaume over a 20 year period surfaced in the extraordinary collection shown to us by Olea, his great grand-daughter.
American insights from the day.
One of the documents which appeared in the fantastic pile of correspondence on Saturday evening, was this, an account of profits and gains for concerts in January 1844, as Bull travelled south from Washington DC, through Virginia, en-route to Mobile, Alabama, before travelling to Havana. He had to learn to talk to his audiences; this was something which seems to have become more and more important as he performed in pioneering venues. He wrote to his wife (27 January 1844):
‘It isn’t as bad as you might imagine, being that I have no experience in English. But one can get a lot done with a strong will’
The account page is laid out with income and outgoings for 5 concerts and for 5 cancelled concerts.
The takings for the 3 concerts in Richmond, Virginia, had clearly fallen off so badly by the 22nd January, that he decide to pay the (not inconsiderable) cancellation fee of $176 dollars, and move on. These concerts were taking place in the ‘First Richmond African Baptist Church’, which was a that time, the only building big enough to host him in Richmond. In slave-owning Virginia, this was large church drew thousands of slaves to services, who were not allowed to marry, to preach, or to read. There was a small area near the front for the white -that is, free- members of the congreation. The church was rented out for ‘white’ events. Confederate President Jefferson Davies gave speeches there during the civil war, two decades later, and the congregation was enjoined to join the southern forces from this pulpit.
After expenses, the page informs us that he had made $2302 profit for the week of concerts. Using the rate suggested by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, this works out at roughly $92.307 for the weeks work. PROFIT. Note that he spent $85 on programme printing, and the money to put labels on the pews of this huge church. He also clearly decided to cut his losses and pay a $176 cancellation fee ($6674 today) when receipts had gone down after the weekend (no concert on the 20th January-the Sabbath). More on this to follow.
A conversation about organs.
One of the letters to Ole Bull which surfaced at the weekend in Bergen, was sent on the January 1880, 8 months before Bull’s death. It seems that Ole Bull had enjoyed the loan of one of Mason & Hamlin’s ‘Cabinet Organs’. The company is better known today, for its pianos. However, the company did not turn to piano making until after Bull’s death. It’s clear that the organ had not been that much of a success, although it is important to remember that at the time this letter was sent, Bull was very ill. In point of fact, Bull had enjoyed a happy working friendship with Emmons Hamlin (1821-1885), one of the founders of the renowned firm, encouraging him to move into violin making, and sending him very old wood for this purpose, from Norway (according to the American Dictionary of National Biography).
It is easy to forget how important the harmonium and ‘cabinet organ’ became in salon music making. Much music intended for performance in such environments include pats for organ and piano, and indeed this is evident from a number of Bull’s manuscript fragments which saw at Lysøen in the course of my research. Webern’s transcriptions of works by Mahler, using a combination of small instrumental ensemble, piano and harmonium illustrate very well, how the organ was seen as a useful alternative to an orchestra, in terms of colour and sustaining qualities. I would go further, and argue that the hearing of the piano as a possible purveyor of true legato, quite aside from the technological advances which were in full spate in the second half of the 19th Century had not gained a foothold, or ear-hold, enough to make the presence of a harmonium unnecessary. Indeed, there is a beautiful example, with an exquisite figured walnut veneer, to be seen at Lysøen. It’s interesting that the Mason & Hamlin were under the impression that Bull had not been satisfied, with then instrument:
‘I hope that we may yet satisfy you’
I suspect that the actual reason that the firm was having to
‘Send a team of men to remove the organ according to [his] wish’
Was that Bull was preparing to return to Norway, where he would die. He was ill-perhaps the reed-based sound of the organ irritated him, or more simply, he, and/or Sarah, was not happy with the obligation which flowed from having the instrument, gratis, in the house. It is clear the Mason & Hamlin were using Bull’s approval as part of their advertising strategy-advertisements printed in the 1870’s quote Bull as saying that: [quote]
‘Excell all instruments of the class that I have ever seen’ – Ole Bull
Perhaps he wanted to consolidate his endorsements, which had certainly got out of hand. The English speaking countries, and E-Bay today, were/are littered with ‘Ole Bull’ branded violins, bows and rosin, to say the least. It’s clear that he had no link to most of these-perhaps he felt that this was one area where it might be possible to control the unregulated advertising press!