Today-27th May, I was invited to meet Schak Bull, the great grandson of Ole Bull’s brother. He is the custodian of what seems to be the one surviving Ole Bull bow. so this was a first chance to reunite these two instruments.
For now, I just want to offer a few reflections on this bow, and my first reactions to it, which hopefully, will mature with time.
First of all, it is worth saying that I am no stranger to the ups and downs of meeting a new instrument. First of all, there’s elation and discovery, then frustration, then, if it’s a great instrument, enlightenment. This bow is very special. The hair length, is roughly 2 cm longer than the bows that I play. I have encountered this before, most particularly, with Fritz Kreisler’s bows at the Libray of Congress in Washington DC. However, there’s an important difference I must mention straighaway. The Kreisler bows (both of which are Hill ‘Fleurs de Lys’) have been extended, by the simple means an additional ring between the stick and the tightening screw. The Ole Bull bow has been designed like this. The results are clean contrary. The Kreisler bows glue themselves to the string. The Ole Bull stick is so unique (sorry, I know that’s tautologous), that I am almost lost for words. But I will try.
But first, a surprising diversion.
It is pretty clear, and for this, I must say THANKYOU to the great Ole Bull expert Harald Herresthal, that this bow was made for Bull in Paris. Herresthal’s essay ‘Ole Bulls bue’ (in ‘Bergen-Bull-Bergenserne’ Bergens Historiske Forening, Bodoni Forlag, Bergen 2010 Pp.102-113) is required reading on this subject. In it, he makes a powerful case for this bow being a product of the bowmaker Pierre Simon (1808-1991), and perhaps dating from the 1850s. Simon was one of the bowmakers who made bows for the greatest of all French violin makers, and close friend of Ole Bull’s Jean Baptiste Vuillaume. Bull spent considerable time, at Vuillaume’s workbench, particularly in the summer of 1848, when he made two violins under the master’s tutelage, and Vuillaume made the astonishing, and huge violin now to be found at Lysoen.
Playing this bow, I could only be reminded of the sadly shattered bow once owned by Niccolo Paganini, whose shards are now to be found in the Palazzo Tursi, in Genova. This bow is not typical of the bows which Paganini used for concert work, (which tended towards earlier models-what sometimes are called ‘swan head’ bows). However it is, like the Bull bow, about 2 cm longer in the hair; and when I played the copies made by the living Belgian archetier, Pierre Guillaume, suprisingly lively. Before I return to the Bull bow, I would just like to offer this; that violinists who had the chance to talk, to work with Vuillaume seem to have been predisposed to ask for bows which suited their purposes, and in the case of these two bows, we have examples of two virtuosi of different gernerations and schools, both obtaining long bows, each of which, in their own ways, can be described as ‘T0urte-models’.
So, how does this bow function? All I can over at the moment are undigested bullet points.
1. It’s heavy (66g), which was something which Bull recommended. And as Bull suggested, this weight means that the bow can do the work. However, and this is the surprise, the weight is very much in the extreme lower half.
2. Following on from this-this bow has the most fantastic, lyrical flying spiccator in the middle of the stick.
3. For ricochet, it bounces long, but fast, with very little effort, and almost no need to ‘throw’ the stick.
4. Despite all the weight in the heel, the point of the bow is very stable and focused, with no trace of the ‘tremor’ which is the bane of many a stick at the tip.
5. For all of the equality of usefulness, in all parts of the stick, I would have to say that this bow works in ‘registers’, that each segment of the hair and the stick, has its own qualities of colour and enunciation, like a Pleyel piano of the 1830s or 40s.
6. After playing it for about an hour, I found that my triceps were very ‘worked out’. I have very strong arms, but this was a surprise, and I reflected on Bull’s athletic approach to the violin. This is not a bow for the weak.
But, of course the exciting thing was the meeting of violin and bow. This is one of those moments when I sense a ‘meeting of minds’ and do my best not to either get on the way, or get hurt. This is an explosive combination, and I will explore it more, tomorrow, when both instruments come out to Lysoen!
It was best summed up by Schak Bull. When I played him Bull’s version of ‘Fanitulla’ (scordatura AEAE), he said: ‘I have a chill in my spine, from that piece’ and went to get a sweater. Then he recited: hine hårde dager/da ved øldrikk og svir/hallingdølens knivblad/satt løst i hans slir, -/da kvinnene til gilde bar likskjorten med, /hvori de kunne legge /sin husbonde ned…’, the terrifying lines from Jørgen Moe, 1813-1882.