Ole Bull and the American Imagination (in preparation)

Posted on November 28th, 2016 by

Ole Bull and the American Imagination

The score of my very imaginative reconstruction of Ole Bull's 'American Fantasy', with the flag presented to Bull by the New York Philharmonic Society

The score of my very imaginative reconstruction of Ole Bull’s ‘American Fantasy’, with the flag presented to Bull by the New York Philharmonic Society

November 28th 2016

Ole Bull’s reception in America was extraordinary. No instrumentalist before him seized the imagination of such a cross-section of the public of this country in flux. The most cursory of glances at the writing in a broad church of the press, from the popular to the serious offers a glimpse of his appeal to all strata and denominations of 19th century American society. Even a Stracchey-esque ‘crystal bucket’ approach to the bewildering richness of responses reveals this broad appeal. The language used to describe Bull’s arrival in a concert hall, theatre, is not far from that which might have been expected were he a great leader, or even a prophet. In 1869, he was a star attraction at Boston’s ‘National Peace Jubilee Music Festival’:

‘…there is a flutter heard in the background, which bursts into a shout of applause, as the tall graceful and dignified form of Ole Bull is seen wending his way down from the back to take his seat as leader of the violin players.’[i]

Ole Bull is going to be very important for me this year; so here's a great place to start, the wonderful Jakob Fjeld statue in Loring Park Minneapolis. It was the first statue of Bull to be erected, and dialogues fascinatingly with the more famous Sinding monument (1901) in Bergen. Watch this space (Photo Marius Skaerved)

Tthe wonderful Jakob Fjeld statue in Loring Park Minneapolis. It was the first statue of Bull to be erected, and dialogues fascinatingly with the more famous Sinding monument (1901) in Bergen.  (Photo Marius Skaerved)

On his arrival in American cities, large and small, Bull was often feted; in the Mid-west, he was seen as both a native son, and an emissary from home. In 1868, arriving by train in Illinois, he was received like a returning hero:

‘Ole Bull returned to Chicago last evening, and was received by his countrymen, who met him en masse at the depot, escorted him to his hotel, serenaded him with native airs, and honored him with vocal performances of this own national compositions.’[ii]

One of Bull’s gifts, was an apparently effortless ability to ingratiate himself with diverse audiences, all of who seemed to claim him as their own. Of course, much of this reveals the shrewd businessman and operator. The Masons were a crucial integer in the success of any autonomous touring artist; in the post-patronage age, they offered access to salons  and audiences unavailable to outsiders. However the scale of Bull’s 1846 welcome by the New York lodges was unprecedented in Europe.

‘…long before the hour of commencement, every nook and corner in the vast edifice was peopled – even the seats, appropriated to the members of the orchestra were encroached upon, so eager wast he desire to hear the last tones of the violinist, and to pay a parting tribute to his extraordinary talents.’[iii]

In these days of fast travel, we have forgotten the possibly-permanent sensation of any departure, particularly when travel involved a sea-journey and great distance. Hence the rapturous greetings and farewells which mark Bull’s arrivals and departures in the USA. He was the first musician of the 19th century to take maximum advantage of high speed ship and rail travel, on occasion crossing the Atlantic four times in one year. But the festival which attended his departures and returns seem not to have lessened, for all of that. It’s worth noting that younger musicians, such as Joseph Joachim (1830-1907), did not cross the ‘Pond’, and, perhaps, missed out on the acclaim enjoyed by Bull and Jenny Lind.

A common response to the first encounter with Bulls playing and the rapture with which he approached the violin was bewilderment. In 1872, the Oneida Circular noted:

‘Our sensations while listening to this artist for the first time cannot be portrayed. We have no language to describe his rendering … .’[iv]

Interestingly, Bull inspired such thunderstruck reactions at all stages in his career. I have a sneaking suspicion that one source of his charisma was a youthful tendency to riot, the sense of a barely suppressed power, even violence, waiting to burst from his tightly buttoned frock coat, his athletic mien, which he retained to the very end. In earlier days, his temperament got him into trouble. In 1829, Bull was in Hanover, where,

‘…he fell in with some German students who were giving a concert in Minden, and, one of the performers having got drunk, Bull was asked to take his part; he was rewarded with enthusiastic applause, followed next day by a challenge from the superseded musicians. Having inflicted a slight wound on his antagonist, Ole Bull was advised to leave the Kingdom of Hanover “the sooner the better”.’[v]

This served him well in wilder parts of the New World, where he discovered  that knife-fighting was preferred to fiddling; he took up this challenged with alacrity, and no little success.

Playing Bull's bow overlooking the city 11pm 2 6 16

Playing Bull’s bow overlooking the Bergen11pm 2 6 16

Every aspect of Bull’s musical ‘make-up’ inspired fascination in audiences and the popular press. Whilst Niccolo Paganini had whipped up interest in his fabulous del Gesu violin, ‘il Cannone’, Bull went one step further; audiences were obsessed with both his violin and his legendary bow, which seems to have attracted more than its fair share of myth-making. The Musical World noted:

‘The splendid diamonds in Ole Bull’s bow, which have attracted so much attention, were not the gift of a single individual, as is supposed by many. The bow is about three times the normal weight, and two inches longer than usual the diamonds are the gifts of friends at various times.’[vi]

‘Two inches longer than usual’ was indeed the case. The (possibly Simon) bow which I am going to play in Bergen today (28/11/16) is far too long to fit in an violin case that I own, but I am not sure that even the athletic Bull would have been able to manage a bow ‘three times the normal weight’. The diamonds attracted considerable fascination, particularly in France, where at various times, it was reported that they had been stolen, or lost.

Bull's da Salo with evidence of a narrow bridge having been fitted forward of the conventional position

Bull’s da Salo with evidence of a narrow bridge having been fitted forward of the conventional position

But the press was fascinated with all aspects of Bull’s relationship to his instruments, even reporting on his practice. A Boston paper noted his exploration of a newly arrived violin:

‘Ole Bull has been improvising on it and the walls of a library room in an historical house in Cambridge have not ceased reverberating.’[vii]

Bull’s unique bowing technique never failed to arouse bewilderment, event bemusement. It was not clear, to either amateurs or professionals, how he achieved many of his effects.

‘…wrought out by such slight undulations of the bow as to leave in something like a puzzle our notions of cause and consequences.’[viii]

Perhaps it was this very ‘something of a puzzle’ which ensorcled audiences. In 1856, ‘Katinka’, rhapsodised about the ‘sweep’ of Bull’s bow.

‘High art or no art, Ole Bull held unutterable bliss within the sweep of this diamond studded bow, for me, and brought spirits near me, both from distant points on earth, or some from above.’[ix]

The young Ole Bull, with his precious Gaspar da Salo, his '2nd Pearl'

The young Ole Bull, with his precious Gaspar da Salo, his ‘2nd Pearl’

The language describing Bull’s instrumental effect on the world around him, from the reverberating halls of a Massachusetts library, to his tug on the heart-strings, wass never less than purple. In 1854, a New York periodical, reached for Milton:

‘Ole Bull is a great creature. He is fitted, if ever mortal man was, to represent the attendant spirit in Milton who: “Well known to still the wild woods when they roared/And hush the moaning winds.”’[x]

There’s more than a hint here, that Bull is Amphion, who inspired the famous line of William Congreve:

“Music has charms to soothe the savage breast to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak…”[xi]

But it is the humanity of Bull’s playing, to which commentators returned, even when there was broad acceptance that, as a composer, his works left something to be desired:

‘…the occasion seemed to have given a new and unearthly inspiration to the great artist; he touched every cord of the heart in his audience.’[xii]

Perhaps it was this artlessness which inspired so many people, to the consternation of serious artists. A Boston reviewer put it very well in 1852. It is clear that here, Old Bull, and his impact was a known quantity, as he puts it ‘eminently a personal matter’. Such language was relatively new.

‘You go to hear and feel Ole Bull rather than to hear and feel his music. It is eminently a personal matter.’[xiii]

Fourteen years earlier, Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) found eloquent language for this personal appeal in a letter to Bull. On December 8th 1838, he wrote him:

 “I was egotistic enough—or perhaps you will give my feeling a nobler name—to imagine and dream that it was singing for me alone; that I alone heard you tell in fragments the story of your artist life through your tones! Ah! Long before I heard you, I had felt an interest in your genial personality; but now that we have met face to face, seen and understood each other, that sentiment has become friendship. I feel it will be a pleasure to know that you have won a soul; therefore I tell you, and am not ashamed.”

And many commentators noted that this intimate communication was graced by something which I cannot recall being mentioned by earlier writers:

‘Ole Bull wins applause by the very power of his gentleness’[xiv]

The Revd. George Bethu elaborated on this theme of softness:

‘I have heard Ole Bull; my ear is now vibrating with the most attenuated, sweetest, softest note it ever heard; his last this evening … no trick, no playing on one string, no convulsive efforts but clear perfect tone, steady bowing, and a perfect mastery of all his instruments.’[xv]

There’s an explicit criticism of Paganini’s ‘one string trick’ here, but of course the reverend was highly unlikely to have heard the Genoan, who resisted repeated attempts to cross the Atlantic in the 1830s. Ludwig Spohr, however, in his Selbstbiographie, poured scorn on those who fell for the ‘pianissimo trick’. Bull, he reported:

‘…kept the bow hovering over the string for several seconds, so that the public who listened in breathless silence for the last sound of his constantly decreasing tones, might believe that they still continued dying away in pp.’[xvi]

There is more than a taste of sour grapes here, as if Spohr wished that he had thought of it. I suspect that Maud Powell had this in mind when remembered Bull.

The old days of virtuoso tricks have passed-I should like to hope for ever. Not that some of the old type virtuosos were not fine players. Remenyi played beautiful. So did Ole Bull. I remember one favourite trick of the latter’s, for instance which would hardly pass muster today. I have seen him drawn out a long pp, the audience listening breathlessly, while he drew his bow way beyond the string and then looked innocently at the point of the bow as though wondering where the tone had vanished. It invariably brought down the house.’ [xvii]

One thing is clear. Over more than four decades, audiences, musicians, critics and writers in the USA reached for new language to articulate the spell which the ‘Flaxen-haired Paganini’ cast over them. This had a signal and long lasting effect on Bull’s reception ‘back home’, and perhaps, ensured his unique place in Nordic Culture today. Arthur Abell recalled Grieg, talking about Bull, who had provided the catalyst for his career:

‘Here Grieg paused for a moment, and then quoted Longfellow’s description of Ole Bull … He knew no English, but, to my delight, recited the poet’s own words, which he had memorized, speaking them haltingly in a marked Norwegian accent: “Fair-haired, blue-eyed, his aspect blithe,/His figure tall and straight and lithe,/And every feature of his face/Revealing his Norwegian race.’[xviii]




[i] History of the National Peace Jubilee. P.498
[ii] Supplement to the Courant, Hertford, Co.. Feb 22 1868
[iii] The Freemason’s Month, 1846
[iv] Oneida Circular, May 13 1872
[v] The Cornhill Magazein, 1829 P.520
[vi] The Musical World, Volume 48, P155
[vii] Harpers New Monthly Magazine, Vol 1-4 1861, P .241
[viii] The New Mirror, 1843, P.158
[ix] Abbie Nott, Katinka, 1856, Philadelphia, P158
[x] Famous Persons and Places, N Parker Willis, NYC 1654, P.485
[xi] The Mourning Bride, William Congreve, Act I scene 1, Quoted in: A musical family, Thos. Rowlandson, Aquatint/Etching, Ackermann, No 101 Strand, London, August 30th 1802, Acc. No. 2003.1026, RAM, London
[xii] The Pictorial Sketch Book of Pennsylvania, Eli Bowen 1854. P146
[xiii] Dwight’s Journal of Music, Boston June 5 1852, P.69
[xiv] Pen and Ink Sketches, 1857, P.198
[xv] Rev George W Bethu to Miss Caroline Anne, Saratoga Springs, August 3 1898, P.184
[xvi] Spohr, UK ed, 1865, Longman London, P.213
[xvii] (Maud Powell-Karen Shaffer & Neca Greenwood, Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa 1988, P.65)
[xviii] Talks with Great comompsers-Arthur Alsell