Ole Bull in Madison, Wisconsin. A new adventure begins!

Posted on September 3rd, 2017 by

‘I must go out into the world, to bring my spark to a flame’ Ole Bull
The first notes of his music to be heard in his Madison Wisconsin Home for a century. 2 9 17

Ole Bull in Madison

We arrived in Madison, Wisconsin, early on the Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend.   I was very generously invited by Bob Klebba and David Vaughan to visit 130 Gilman Street, Madison, Wisconsin. This is the extraordinary 1850’s mansion which was Bull’s home in the State Capital, after he married Sarah Thorpe in 1870. Fortuitously, our hotel was situated, in the shadow of the magnificent State Capitol building, just a few blocks from 130 Gilman Street. So the walk from our hotel to Ole Bull’s Madison home was, quite literally, first left, third right and up the hill. Never was there a less onerous pilgrimage.


Here is the title page of the collected Mozart sonatas, inscribed by Bull to his second wife, Sarah, before their marriage, which I found researching in his house in Bergen


I have often asked myself what it is I am hunting for, when I try to get close to an object, a place, or a person from the past? If I were an actor, playing a role, I suspect that the answer might seem clear. Or, if my interest was that of a historian, looking for the how, the why, and the when, I might have a better idea of what it is that I do. Richard Holmes has written beautifully of his need, to put his feet in the footsteps of a forbear, if it is the young Robert Louis Stevenson that he is hunting, or to stand and look from (as well as at)the place where his subject hung his hat, if it is Percy Bysshe Shelley on the banks of the Arno. I cannot deny that these approaches are part of what I do, but it’s not the whole story.

Lysefjord seen from where I performed in Bull’s Music Room 31 5 14

Another way that I might have to look at this activity, is, doubtless, tied to my interest in instruments, in objects, owned by, of pertinent to whomever, whatever, fascinates me at any given time. If I can put my hand on something, fathom out, how does it work? – What does it feel like? – Then I have a useful tool for understanding and performing. This applies as much to a door handle as a great musical instrument. And, of course, the practical aspect of this is accompanied by the haptic (what does it feel like to hold, to touch?), the sense of quiddity, or thingness (what do I learn from the physical reality of something, practical and, if you will forgive me, intangibly?), and the mystic the ‘acqui es encerrada el alma de ….’, where an object offers understanding, meaning, even revelation which stretches far beyond logic, fact, or proof.

Bull's birthplace, the family business

Bull’s birthplace, the family business

A house, a home, is a summa of these things, as our relationship with the places where we live, work, are born, die, or merely pause, is infuriatingly irrational. Or perhaps I should say magical. If I stand on Brook Street and look up at the house where Handel lived, the vibration, the glimmer of the building is all the more, because it’s also the place that Jimi Hendrix stayed in London. Handel certainly did not know that another great musician was going to call the place home for a while. I have never seen any suggestion that Hendrix knew or cared about the earlier tenant. But, there’s no denying the fact that I, standing on the traffic island between careening messenger cycles and queueing taxis, sense a hum, like feedback, emanating from the house and the two H’s, travellers both. And I am not that interested in either of them.


I find that the impression is more powerful, for me, that is, when I am on the trail, hunting the sound, the passport, if you like, of itinerant artists. And there was no more footloose violinist than Ole Bull. So, many of my impressions are of movement. I stand on the sidewalk where ‘Svaneapoteken’, Bull’s birthplace and childhood home, stood in Bergen; the wooden building is no longer there, burnt down in one of the many fires that have plagued the city in the pasts 1000 years. But the new building is still a pharmacy, and there’s still a bronze swan over the door. And, although the building was re-orientated, and the entrance moved from the street to the corner, the stone arch is still the original. It was through this doorway that the young boy came and went, it was from here that he ‘went out in to the world, to bring [his] spark to a flame’. It was from here, that his journey began, to new homes, or which the most distant, would be the Sandstone mansion on Gilmann Street. He left one, and arrived at another and that’s one aspect of what I try to do.

Arriving at Lysoen, on my first visit, in 2012

So often it’s the walk, or the drive, or the boat ride to such a place which leaves the most indelible impression. The only way to get to Lysøen, Bull’s most spectacular residence, is across the Lysefjørd from Buena Kai, by boat. The first time I went there, it was a spectacular, golden, autumn morning. The water was millpond smooth, and the boat ride to Bull’s ‘Moorish Alhambra’ felt like some regal progress. At the same time, as this was my first visit to one of Bull’s homes, I reached for typologies, equivalencies in my own experience. My childhood summers were spent on the creeks of the Lizard Peninsula in South Cornwall, where oak trees reach down to the water, and sunsets are graced with curlew cries. So my first impression is that Bull would have liked the Gillan Creek, St Antony in Meneage. My second impression was that Bull’s ‘creek’ smelt sweeter; with under a metre of tide, there was far less Bladderwrack to oxidise, exposed, each day.

With time, I came to have a very personal understanding, one that works for me, of what Bull sought in order to work, to live, to play, to rest. Rest was in short supply in his 50 year career, so it was important that it was the kind of rest that he needed. It’s something that many touring musicians have longed for; sanctuary. Niccolo Paganini dreamt of retiring to a country mansion, where he could play chamber music with his friends, and eat food, prepared to his mother’s recipes. A home, a retreat, with elements of an idealised childhood, but shorn of its various privations. Unlike Paganini, who was stricken with recurrent health problems from his 40s onwards, Ole Bull was blessed with rude health, and, it seems to me, never sought to slow down. When a statue was proposed, at one point, depicting him with lowered bow, Bull protested: ‘No, no! I want to live!’

The view from James Madison Park, to Maple Bluff and Governor’s Island. 1 9 17

We arrived a little early at the Thorpe Mansion, so walked a little further, 2 minutes down the hill to the shore of Mendota Lake. My reaction was immediate, and vocal: “Well, of course he had to marry her! He took one look at this, and he felt at home.” It was a late summer’s morning and, to appropriate T S Eliot, ‘another day/Prepares for heat and silence.’ Mendota Lake was watered silk, and the clouds looked at their own reflections. He stood here, it seemed, and thought: this, this is another home, this I know.

Here’s our first sight of the house, built from golden sandstone, in a classical, but distinctly Midwestern Style.

The Thorpe/Bull Mansion 930 am 2 9 17

Here’s the back of the house in the 1870’s-the lower level rear section was made from wood and replaced with stone after Bull’s death in 1880

The rear of the house seen from the side of Lake Mendota, 1870s

The rear of the house, today


Decoration on the front steps

Pericles oversees the drawing roo,

The main staircase

A wonderful salon audience and the house springs into life. 130 Gilman, 2 9 17