Violinist Ole Bull, childhood and musical beginnings

Violinist OLE BULL, childhood and musical beginnings

"A typical Norseman, erect of bearing, with a commanding presence and mobile, kindly face, from which the eyes shone clear and fearless as the spirits of old Norway hovering over his native mountains.

He was a man to evoke respect and love under all conditions, and, when he stepped before an audience, roused an instantaneous throb of sympathy, of interest, before the sweep of his magical bow enthralled their souls with its melodious measures."

Such is an excellent pen picture of Ole Bull, who during the middle of the nineteenth century was known far and wide as a great violinist.

Among the celebrated musicians of all nations, Ole Bull will always remain a striking figure.

As a musician, none so eminent has been so essentially a self-made man, none has grown up with so little influence from outside, none with a technique so essentially self-discovered.

As a son of his country, none has retained so sturdy a sense of patriotism; none has, amid the more brilliant surroundings of a life spent in the gayest cities of the world, refused to be weaned from the poor northern, half-dependent state from which he issued a penniless lad.

Olaus Borneman Bull was born at Bergen, in Norway, February 5, 1810, and was the eldest of ten children. His father was a physician and apothecary.

He was musical, as were several other members of his family, and little Ole's love for music was fostered to a great degree at home by the Tuesday quartet meetings, at which his Uncle Jens played the cello. In the early part of the century, the proverb, "Spare the rod and spoil the child," was regarded as the foundation of education in most countries, and few children were allowed to spoil.

All childish desires which conflicted with parental ideas were promptly suppressed by "the rod," until by sheer strength they proved to be unsuppressible.

Then they became great virtues. It was thus with Ole Bull. His first desire to hear the quartet music, which he gratified by hiding under sofas or behind curtains, was rewarded with the rod,— for he should have been in bed.

After a time a concession was made through the intervention of Uncle Jens, and Ole was allowed to become familiar with the best music of the day.

Uncle Jens used to amuse himself with the small boy's susceptibility to music, and would sometimes shut him up in the cello case, promising him some candy if he would stay there while he (Uncle Jens) played.

But Ole could never endure the ordeal for long. He had to come out where he could see and hear.

His first violin was given him by Uncle Jens when he was five years old, and he soon learned to play it well without any instructor.

He was not allowed to practise music until his study hours were over, and occasional breaches of this rule kept "the rod" active.

Ole Bull's first instructor was a violinist named Paulsen, a man of convivial temperament, who used to come and enjoy the hospitality of Ole's father and play "as long as there was a drop in the decanter," with a view to educating the young artist, as he said.

But Ole's parents were thinking of prohibiting the violin altogether on the plea that it interfered too much with his studies, when the tide of affairs was changed by the following incident.

One Tuesday evening, Paulsen, who played first violin in the quartet, had been so convivial that he was unable to continue. In this unfortunate dilemma Uncle Jens called upon Ole, saying, "Come, my boy, do your best, and you shall have a stick of candy."

Ole quickly accepted the challenge, and as the quartet was one which he had several times heard, he played each movement correctly, much to the astonishment of all present.

This happened on his eighth birthday, and the event marked an epoch in his life, for he was elected an active member of the Tuesday club, and began to take lessons regularly of the convivial Paulsen.

There is a pathetic story of how Ole induced his father to buy a new violin for him, and, unable to restrain his desire to play it, he got up in the night, opened the case, and touched the strings. This furtive touch merely served to whet his appetite, and he tried the bow. Then he began to play very softly; then, carried away with enthusiasm, he played louder and louder, until suddenly he felt the sharp sting of his father's whip across his shoulders, and the little violin fell to the floor and was broken.

From 1819 to 1822 Ole Bull received no violin instruction, for Paulsen had left Bergen without explanation, though it has been hinted that Ole Bull had outgrown him, and on that account he thought it wise to depart.

In 1822 a Swedish violinist came to Bergen, and Ole took lessons of him. His name was Lundholm, and he was a pupil of Baillot. Lundholm was very strict and would admit of no departure from established rules.

He quite failed to make the boy hold his instrument according to the accepted method, but his custom of making his pupil stand upright, with his head and back against the wall while playing, no doubt gave to him that repose and grace of bearing which was so noticeable in later years.

Lundholm was, however quite unable to control his precocious pupil and a coolness soon sprung up between them, which appears to have culminated in the following incident.

On a Tuesday evening, at one of the regular meetings, Lundholm played Baillot's "Caprizzi," but Ole Bull was much disappointed at the pedantic, phlegmatic manner in which he rendered the passionate phrases. When the company went to supper Ole found on the leader's music-rack a concerto of Spohr's, and began to try it over. Carried away with the music, he forgot himself, and was discovered by Lundholm on his return, and scolded for his presumption.

"What impudence!" said the violinist. "Perhaps you think you could play this at sight, boy?" "Yes," was the reply, "I think I could." His remark was heard by the rest of the company, who were now returning, and they all insisted that he should try it. He played the allegro, and all applauded except Lundholm, who looked angry. "You think you can play anything," he said, and, taking a caprice of Paganini's from the stand, he added, "Try this."

It happened that this caprice was a favourite of the young violinist, who had learned it by heart. He therefore played it in fine style, and received the hearty applause of the little audience. Lundholm, however, instead of raving, was more polite and kind than he had ever been before, and told Ole that with practice he might hope to equal him (Lundholm) some day.

Years afterwards, when Ole Bull was making a concert tour through Norway, and was travelling in a sleigh over the snow-covered ground, he met another sleigh coming from the opposite direction, of which the occupant recognized him, and made signs to him to stop. It was Lundholm.

"Well," shouted he, "now that you are a famous violinist, remember that when I heard you play Paganini I predicted that your career would be a remarkable one."

"Oh," exclaimed Ole Bull, "you were mistaken, for I did not read that piece, I knew it before." "It makes no difference," was the reply, as the sleighs parted.

Student life

In 1828, Bull leaves for Christiania (later Oslo) to study. He is to pursue the priesthood, but fails the Latin exam.

In an attempt to pacify his parents, he writes to them of his failing grade “ … Still, who knows if it might not be for the better …”.

The comment seems to indicate a certain doubt about his chosen studies. During Bull’s time as a student he also meets and becomes good friends with Henrik Wergeland - the poet known to every Norwegian (1804-1845).

Violinist Ole Bull

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