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Ole Bull, Virtuoso Violinist, Composer and Norwegian Nationalist. (1810-1880)

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His name might not be all that familiar on these shores but in Norway everybody knows Ole Bull. In fact a few generations ago everybody here too, would have heard of Ole Bull and equally so in the rest of Europe and in the States. His reputation was on a par with that of Paganini and deservedly so, while his looks were certainly much better than Paganini’s. His marketing endeavors were  probably on a par with those of André Rieu but more idiosyncratic and unassisted  by modern media.  He was an extremely talented violinist and extremely charismatic personality. Women swooned at his concerts.  He helped Norway establish its cultural heritage and was a great advocate for Norwegian independence.  In 1850, he co-founded the first theatre in which the actors spoke the Norwegian language, rather than Danish.

His father, a pharmacist, wanted Ole to become a minister but from an early age the young Ole rebelled. He wanted to make a career in music. At the age of four he could play all the songs he had heard on his violin and at the age of nine he played solo with the Bergen Philharmonic. At the time Norway was part of the Swedish Crown and it wasn’t long before the self-taught Ole was asked to play at a royal party. When the Swedish King, clearly impressed, asked Ole who taught him, he answered: “The Norwegian mountains, Your Majesty”

Ole Bull certainly knew financial hardship in his student days but made a breakthrough while visiting Italy in his twenties. He quickly became very successful, busy and rich but never learned to spend his money wisely. He travelled all over the world. In 1837 he gave 274 concerts in England alone. He built a splendid villa on the picturesque island of Lysøen near Bergen on the proceeds of a single concert. For Norway the villa is an extremely exotic looking construction with an onion dome and a fabulous music room decorated with columns reminiscent of the Alhambra, all carved from pine. The room has a great acoustic which we were lucky enough to experience when we were asked to give a concert here for the bicentenary celebrations of the birth of Ole Bull. The house was donated by Ole Bull’s granddaughter to the equivalent of the National trust and is now a museum. It had just been restored for the celebrations.

It was difficult to programme for this occasion. Ole Bull wrote a lot of music but only few of his works were published. Most of his compositions were virtuoso violin showpieces which were for his sole use and these were probably never written down.  It is estimated that of the music he did write down, only 10% has survived. We searched hard to find something appropriate to play. We were quite taken with Ensomme Stunde, a beautifully melancholic string quartet movement which we performed at Lysøen. After our performance we discovered that this piece is irrevocably associated with funerals in the Norwegian psyche.

A luckier choice of music was Fra Frederiksværn, a little piece that we will play for you today. Our arrangement is based on a scrap of manuscript paper that was discovered in Lysøen during the restoration project when a lot of his music was archived. The piece had no title but there was a scribble at the bottom of the paper which translates ‘reminiscences of the concert in Frederiksværn on 20 October 1842’.


Monday, 30 May, 2011