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Ole Bull

In the quaint old town of Bergen, Norway, so strange with its narrow

streets, peculiar costumes, and open-hearted people, that no traveller

can ever forget it, was born, Feb. 5, 1810, Ole Bull, the oldest in a

family of ten children. His father was an able chemist, and his mother a

woman of fine manners and much intelligence. All the relatives were

musical, and at the little gatherings for the purpose of cultivating

s talent, the child Ole would creep under table or sofa, and listen

enraptured for hours, often receiving a whipping when discovered.

He loved music intensely, fancying when he played alone in the meadows,

that he heard nature sing, as the bluebells were moved among the grasses

by the wind. When he was four years old, his uncle gave him a yellow

violin, which he kissed with great delight, learning the notes at the

same time as his primer. Although forbidden to play till study-hours

were over, he sometimes disobeyed, and was punished both at home and at


(From his Memoirs, by SARA C. BULL.)]

Finally, at eight, through the good sense of his mother, a

music-teacher was provided, and his father bought him a new red violin.

The child could not sleep for thinking of it; so the first night after

its purchase he stole into the room where it lay, in his night-clothes,

to take one peep at the precious thing. He said years after, with tears

in his eyes at the painful remembrance, "The violin was so red, and the

pretty pearl screws did smile at me so! I pinched the strings just a

little with my fingers. It smiled at me ever more and more. I took up

the bow and looked at it. It said to me it would be pleasant to try it

across the strings. So I did try it, just a very, very little, and it

did sing to me so sweetly. At first, I did play very soft. But presently

I did begin a capriccio, which I like very much, and it do go ever

louder and louder; and I forgot that it was midnight and that everybody

was asleep. Presently I hear something crack! and the next minute I feel

my father's whip across my shoulders. My little red violin dropped on

the floor, and was broken. I weep much for it, but it did no good. They

did have a doctor to it next day, but it never recovered its health."

Pitiful it is that sometimes parents are so lacking in judgment as to

stifle the best things in a child's nature! Guiding is wise; forcing

usually ends in disaster. In two years, Ole could play pieces which his

teacher found it impossible to perform. He began to compose melodies,

imitating nature in the song of birds, brooks, and the roar of

waterfalls; and would hide in caves or in clumps of bushes, where he

could play his own weird improvisations. When he could not make his

violin do as he wished, he would fling it away impetuously, and not

touch it again for a long time. Then he would perhaps get up in the

middle of the night, and play at his open window, forgetting that

anybody might be awakened by it. Sometimes he played incessantly for

days, scarcely eating or sleeping. He had no pleasure in fishing or

shooting, on account of the pain inflicted,--a feeling seemingly common

to noble and refined natures,--though he greatly enjoyed anything


At fourteen, having heard of Paganini, he went to his grandparent, of

whom he was very fond, and said, "Dear grandmother, can't I have some of

Paganini's music?"

"Don't tell any one," was the reply; "but I will try to buy a piece of

his for you if you are a good child."

Shortly after this an old miser, of whom the Bergen boys were afraid,

called Ole into his house one day as he was passing, and said, "Are you

the boy that plays the fiddle?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then come with me. I have a fiddle I bought in England, that I want to

show you."

The fiddle needed a bridge and sounding-post, and these the boy gladly

whittled out, and then played for the old man his favorite air, "God

save the King." He was treated to cakes and milk, and promised to come

again. The next afternoon, what was his surprise to receive four pairs

of doves, with a blue ribbon around the neck of one, and a card attached

bearing the name of "Ole Bull." This present was more precious than the

diamonds he received in later years from the hands of royalty.

Ole's father, with a practical turn of mind, urged his being a

clergyman, as he honored that profession, and well knew that music and

art usually furnish a small bank account. A private tutor, Musaeus by

name, was therefore engaged. This man had the unique habit of kneeling

down to pray before he whipped a boy, and asking that the punishment

might redound to the good of the lad. He soon made up his mind that

Ole's violin and theology were incompatible, and forbade his playing it.

Ole and his brothers bore his harsh methods as long as possible, when

one morning at half past four, as the teacher was dragging the youngest

boy out of bed, Ole sprang upon him and gave him a vigorous beating. The

smaller boys put their heads out from under the bed-clothes and cried

out, "Don't give up, Ole! Don't give up! Give it to him with all your

might!" The whole household soon appeared upon the scene, and though

little was said, the private feeling seemed to be that a salutary lesson

had been imparted.

At eighteen, Ole was sent to the University of Christiana, his father

beseeching him that he would not yield to his passion for music. On his

arrival, some Bergen students asked him to play for a charitable


"But," said Ole, "my father has forbidden me to play."

"Would your father prevent your doing an act of charity?"

"Well, this alters the case a little, and I can write to him, and claim

his pardon."

After this he played nearly all night at the home of one of the

professors, saying to himself that his father would be pleased if the

Faculty liked him, and the next morning failed in his Latin

examinations! In despair, he stated the case to the professor, who

replied, "My good fellow, this is the very best thing that could have

happened to you! Do you believe yourself fitted for a curacy in Finmark

or a mission among the Laps? Certainly not! It is the opinion of your

friends that you should travel abroad. Meanwhile, old Thrane having been

taken ill, you are appointed ad interim Musical Director of the

Philharmonic and Dramatic Societies." A month later, by the death of

Thrane, he came into this position, having gained the pardon of his

disappointed father.

But he was restless at Christiana. He desired to know whether he really

had genius or not, and determined to go to Cassell, to see Louis Spohr,

who was considered a master. The great man was not sufficiently great to

be interested in an unknown lad, and coolly said, when Ole remarked

politely, "I have come more than five hundred miles to hear you," "Very

well, you can now go to Nordhausen; I am to attend a musical festival


Ole went to the festival, and was so disappointed because the methods

and interpretation were different from his own, that he resolved to go

back to classic studies, feeling that he had no genius for music. Still

he was not satisfied. He would go to Paris, and hear Berlioz and other

great men. Giving three concerts at Trondhjeim and Bergen, by which he

made five hundred dollars, he found himself in possession of the needed

funds. When he arrived in this great city, everybody was eagerly looking

out for himself. Some were in pursuit of pleasure; but most, as is the

case everywhere, were in pursuit of bread and shelter. Nobody cared to

hear his violin. Nobody cared about his recommendations from far-off

Norway. In vain he tried to make engagements. He had no one to speak for

him, and the applicants were numberless.

Madam Malibran was singing nightly to crowded houses, and the poor

violinist would now and then purchase one of the topmost seats, and

listen to that marvellous voice. His money was gradually melting away.

Finally, an elderly gentleman who boarded at the same house, having

begged him to take what little money he possessed out of the bank, as it

was not a safe place, stole every cent, together with Ole's clothes, and

left him entirely destitute.

An acquaintance now told him of a boarding-place where there were

several music-teachers, and gave security for his board for one

month,--twelve dollars. Soon the friend and the boarding-mistress grew

cold and suspicious. Nothing tries friendship like asking the loan of

money. At last his condition becoming known to a person, whom he

afterward learned was Vidocq, the noted Chief of Police, he was shown by

him to a gaming-table, where he made one hundred and sixty dollars.

"What a hideous joy I felt," he said afterward; "what a horrid pleasure

to hold in the hand one's own soul saved by the spoil of others!" He

could not gamble again, though starvation actually stared him in the


Cholera was sweeping through the city, and had taken two persons from

the house where he lodged. He was again penniless and wellnigh

despairing. But he would not go back to Christiana. The river Seine

looked inviting, and he thought death would be a relief. He was nervous

and his brain throbbed. Finally he saw a placard in a window, "Furnished

rooms to let." He was exhausted, but would make one more effort.

An elderly lady answered his query by saying that they had no vacant

rooms, when her pretty granddaughter, Alexandrine Felicie, called out,

"Look at him, grandmamma!" Putting on her glasses, the tears filled her

eyes, as she saw a striking resemblance to her son who had died. The

next day found him at Madam Villeminot's house, very ill of brain fever.

When he regained consciousness, she assured him that he need not worry

about the means for payment. When, however, the Musical Lyceum of

Christiana learned of his struggles, they sent him eight hundred


Becoming acquainted about this time with Monsieur Lacour, a dealer in

violins, who thought he had discovered that a certain kind of varnish

would increase sweetness of tone, Ole Bull was requested to play on one

of his instruments at a soiree, given by a Duke of the Italian Legation.

An elegant company were present. The intense heat soon brought out the

odor of assafoetida in the varnish. The young man became embarrassed

and then excited, and played as though beside himself. The player was

advertised, whether Monsieur Lacour's instruments were or not; for

Marshal Ney's son, the Duke of Montebello, at once invited him to

breakfast, and presided over a concert for him, whereby the violinist

made three hundred dollars. The tide had turned at last, and little

Felicie Villeminot had done it with her "Look at him, grandmamma!"

As the Grand Opera was still closed to him, he made a concert tour

through Switzerland and Italy. In Milan, one of the musical journals

said, "He is not master of himself; he has no style; he is an untrained

musician. If he be a diamond, he is certainly in the rough and


Ole Bull went at once to the publisher and asked who had written the

article. "If you want the responsible person," said the editor, "I am


"No," said the artist, "I have not come to call the writer to account,

but to thank him. The man who wrote that article understands music; but

it is not enough to tell me my faults; he must tell me how to rid myself

of them."

"You have the spirit of the true artist," replied the journalist.

The same evening he took Ole Bull to the critic, a man over seventy,

from whom he learned much that was valuable. He at once gave six months

to study under able masters, before again appearing in public. He was,

however, an earnest student all through life, never being satisfied with

his attainments.

At Venice he was highly praised, but at Bologna he won the celebrity

which continued through life. Malibran was to sing in two concerts, but

feigned illness when she learned that the man she loved, De Beriot, was

to receive a smaller sum than herself, and would not appear. The manager

of the theatre was in despair. Meantime, in a poor hotel, in an upper

room, Ole Bull was composing his concerto in the daytime, and playing on

his violin at night by his open window. Rossini's first wife heard the

music, and said, "It must be a violin, but a divine one. That will be a

substitute for De Beriot and Malibran. I must go and tell Zampieri" (the


On the night of the concert, after Ole Bull had been two hours in bed

from weariness, Zampieri appeared, and asked him to improvise. He was

delighted, and exclaiming, "Malibran may now have her headaches,"

hurried the young artist off to the theatre. The audience was of course

cold and disappointed till Ole Bull began to play. Then the people

seemed to hold their breath. When the curtain fell, he almost swooned

with exhaustion, but the house shook with applause. Flowers were

showered upon him. He was immediately engaged for the next concert; a

large theatre was offered him free of expense, one man buying one

hundred tickets, and the admiring throng drew his carriage to the hotel,

while a procession with torchlights acted as guard of honor.

Ole Bull had stepped into the glory of fame in a single night.

Henceforth, while there was to be much of trial and disappointment, as

come to all, he was to be forever the idol of two continents, drawing

crowded houses, honored by the great, and universally mourned at his

death. He had come to fame as by accident, but he had made himself

worthy of fame.

Malibran at first seemed hurt at his wonderful success in her stead, but

she soon became one of his warmest friends, saying, "It is your own

fault that I did not treat you as you deserved. A man like you should

step forth with head erect in the full light of day, that we may

recognize his noble blood."

From here he played with great success at Florence and Rome, at the

latter city composing his celebrated "Polacca Guerriera" in a single

night, writing till four o'clock in the morning. It was first conceived

while he stood alone at Naples, at midnight, watching Mount Vesuvius


Returning to Paris, he found the Grand Opera open to him. Here, at his

first performance, his a-string snapped; he turned deathly pale, but he

transposed the remainder of the piece, and finished it on three strings.

Meyerbeer, who was present, could not believe it possible that the

string had really broken.

He was now twenty-six, famous and above want. What more fitting than

that he should marry pretty Felicie Villeminot, and share with her the

precious life she had saved? They were married in the summer of 1836,

and their love was a beautiful and enduring one until her death

twenty-six years afterward. Though absent from her much of the time

necessarily, his letters breathe a pure and ardent affection. Going to

England soon after, and being at the house of the Duke of Devonshire at

Chatsworth, he writes, "How long does the time seem that deprives me of

seeing you! I embrace you very tenderly. The word home has above all

others the greatest charm for me."

In London, from three to seven thousand persons crowded to hear him. The

"Times" said, "His command of the instrument, from the top to the

bottom of the scale--and he has a scale of his own of three complete

octaves on each string--is absolutely perfect." At Liverpool he received

four thousand dollars for a single night, taking the place of Malibran,

who had brought on a hemorrhage resulting in death, by forcing a tone,

and holding it so long that the audience were astonished. Ole Bull came

near sharing her fate. In playing "Polacca," the hall being large and

the orchestra too strong, he ruptured a blood vessel, and his coat had

to be cut from him.

In sixteen months he gave two hundred and seventy-four concerts in the

United Kingdom. Afterwards, at St. Petersburg, he played to five

thousand persons, the Emperor sending him an autograph letter of

affection, and the Empress an emerald ring set with one hundred and

forty diamonds. Shortly after this his father died, speaking with pride

of Ole, and thinking he heard divine music.

On his return to Norway, at the request of the King, he gave five

concerts at Stockholm, the last netting him five thousand dollars. So

moved was the King when Ole Bull played before him at the palace, that

he rose and stood till the "Polacca" was finished. He presented the

artist with the Order of Vasa, set in brilliants.

In Christiana, the students gave him a public dinner, and crowned him

with laurel. He often played for the peasants here and in Bergen, and

was beloved by the poor as by the rich. At Copenhagen he was presented

at Court, the King giving him a snuff-box set in diamonds. Hans Andersen

became his devoted friend, as did Thorwaldsen while he was in Rome. He

now went to Cassell, and Spohr hastened to show him every attention, as

though to make amends for the coldness when Ole Bull was poor and

unknown. At Salzburg he invited the wife of Mozart to his concerts. For

her husband he had surpassing admiration. He used to say that no mortal

could write Mozart's "Requiem" and live.

While in Hungary, his first child, Ole, died. He wrote his wife, "God

knows how much I have suffered! I still hope and work, not for

myself,--for you, my family, my country, my Norway, of which I am


All this time he was working very hard. He said, "I must correspond with

the directors of the theatres; must obtain information regarding the

people with whom I am to deal; I must make my appointments for concerts

and rehearsals; have my music copied, correct the scores, compose, play,

travel nights. I am always cheated, and in everlasting trouble. I

reproach myself when everything does not turn out for the best, and am

consumed with grief. I really believe I should succumb to all these

demands and fatigues if it were not for my drinking cold water, and

bathing in it every morning and evening."

In November, 1843, urged by Fanny Elssler, he visited America. At

first, in New York, some of the prominent violinists opposed him; but he

steadily made his way. When Mr. James Gordon Bennett offered him the

columns of the "Herald," that he might reply to those who were assailing

him, he said in his broken English, "I tink, Mr. Bennett, it is best tey

writes against me, and I plays against tem." Of his playing in New York,

Mrs. Lydia Maria Child wrote, "His bow touched the strings as if in

sport, and brought forth light leaps of sound, with electric rapidity,

yet clear in their distinctness. He played on four strings at once, and

produced the rich harmony of four instruments. While he was playing, the

rustling of a leaf might have been heard; and when he closed, the

tremendous bursts of applause told how the hearts of thousands leaped

like one. His first audience were beside themselves with delight, and

the orchestra threw down their instruments in ecstatic wonder."

From New York he took a successful trip South. That he was not

effeminate while deeply poetic, a single incident will show. After a

concert, a man came to him and said he wished the diamond in his violin

bow, given him by the Duke of Devonshire. Ole Bull replied that as it

was a gift, he could neither sell it nor give it away.

"But I am going to have that stone!" said the man as he drew a bowie

knife from his coat. In an instant Ole Bull had felled the man to the

floor with the edge of his hand across his throat. "The next time I

would kill you," said the musician, with his foot on the man's chest;

"but you may go now." So much did the ruffian admire the muscle and

skill of the artist, that he begged him to accept the knife which he had

intended to use upon him.

During this visit to America he gave two hundred concerts, netting him,

said the "New York Herald," fully eighty thousand dollars, besides

twenty thousand given to charitable associations, and fifteen thousand

paid to assistant artists. "No artist has ever visited our country and

received so many honors. Poems by the hundreds have been written to him;

gold vases, pencils, medals, have been presented to him by various

corporations. His whole remarkable appearance in this country is really

unexampled in glory and fame," said the same newspaper. Ole Bull was

kindness itself to the sick or afflicted. Now he played for Alice and

Phoebe Carey, when unable to leave their home, and now for insane and

blind asylums and at hospitals. He loved America, and called himself

"her adopted son."

On his return to Norway, after great success in Spain, the Queen

bestowing upon him the order of Charles III. and the Portuguese order of

Christus, he determined to build a National Theatre in Bergen, his

birthplace, for the advancement of his nation in the drama and in music.

By great energy, and the bestowal of a large sum of money, the place was

opened in 1850, Ole Bull leading the orchestra. But the Storthing, or

Parliament, declined to give it a yearly appropriation,--perhaps the

development of home talent tended too strongly toward republicanism. The

burden was too great for one man to carry, and the project did not prove

a success.

The next plan of the philanthropist-musician was to buy one hundred and

twenty-five thousand acres of land on the Susquehanna River, in

Pennsylvania, and "found a New Norway, consecrated to liberty, baptized

with independence, and protected by the Union's mighty flag." Soon three

hundred houses were built, a country inn, store, and church, erected by

the founder. To pay the thousands needed for this enterprise he worked

constantly at concert-giving, taking scarcely time to eat his meals. He

laid out five new villages, made arrangements with the government to

cast cannon for her fortresses, and took out patents for a new


While in California, where he was ill with yellow fever, a crushing blow

fell upon him. He learned that he had purchased the land through a

swindling company, his title was invalid, and his fortune was lost. He

could only buy enough land to protect those who had already come from

Norway, and had settled there, and soon became deeply involved in

lawsuits. Hon. E. W. Stoughton of New York, who had never met Ole Bull

personally, volunteered to assist him, and a few thousands were wrested

from the defrauding agent.

On his return to Norway he was accused of speculating with the funds of

his countrymen, which cut him to the heart. A little later, in 1862, his

wife died, worn with ill health, and with her husband's misfortunes, and

his son Thorvald fell from the mast of a sailing-vessel in the

Mediterranean, and was killed.

In the autumn of 1868 he returned to America, and nearly lost his life

in a steamboat collision on the Ohio. He swam to land, saving also his

precious violin. Two years afterward he was married to Miss Thorp of

Madison, Wis., an accomplished lady much his junior in years, who has

lived to write an admirable life of her illustrious husband. A daughter,

Olea, came to gladden his home two years later. When he was sixty-six

years old, he celebrated his birthday by playing his violin on the top

of the great pyramid, Cheops, at the suggestion of King Oscar of Norway

and Sweden.

In the Centennial year he returned to America, and made his home at

Cambridge, in the house of James Russell Lowell, while he was Minister

to England. Here he enjoyed the friendship of such as Longfellow, who

says of him in his "Tales of a Wayside Inn":--

"The angel with the violin,

Painted by Raphael, he seemed,

* * * * *

And when he played, the atmosphere

Was filled with magic, and the ear

Caught echoes of that Harp of Gold,

Whose music had so weird a sound,

The hunted stag forgot to bound,

The leaping rivulet backward rolled,

The birds came down from bush and tree,

The dead came from beneath the sea,

The maiden to the harper's knee!"

The friend of the highest, he never forgot the lowest. When a colored

barber in Hartford, a lad who was himself a good fiddler, heard Ole Bull

play, the latter having sent him a ticket to his concert, he said,

"Mister, can't you come down to the shop to-morrow to get shaved, and

show me those tricks? I feel powerful bad."

And Ole Bull went to the shop, and showed him how the wonderful playing

was accomplished.

In 1880 Ole Bull sailed, for the last time, to Europe, to his lovely

home at Lyso, an island in the sea, eighteen miles from Bergen. Ill on

the voyage, he was thankful to reach the cherished place. Here, planned

by his own hand, was his elegant home overlooking the ocean; here his

choice music-room upheld by delicate columns and curiously wrought

arches; here the shell-roads he had built; and here the flower-beds he

had planted. The end came soon, on a beautiful day full of sunshine.

The body lay in state in the great music-room till a larger steamer came

to bear it to Bergen. This was met by a convoy of sixteen steamers

ranged on either side; and as the fleet approached the city, all flags

were at half-mast, and guns were fired, which re-echoed through the

mountains. The quay was covered with juniper, and the whole front

festooned with green. As the boat touched the shore, one of Ole Bull's

inimitable melodies was played. Young girls dressed in black bore the

trophies of his success, and distinguished men carried his gold crown

and order, in the procession. The streets were strewn with flowers, and

showered upon the coffin. When the service had been read at the grave by

the pastor, Bjornson, the famous author, gave an address. After the

coffin had been lowered and the mourners had departed, hundreds of

peasants came, bringing a green bough, a sprig of fern, or a flower, and

quite filled the grave. Beautiful tribute to a beautiful life!