Ole Bull (1810-1880)



Donald Macleod charts the early life of violin prodigy and musical revolutionary Ole Bull.

Ask most music buffs who Norway's greatest classical composer is, and you're likely to get a 100% vote for Edvard Grieg.

Put the same question to almost anyone in Norway itself, and you'll get the answer Ole Bull: violinist extraordinaire, prolific composer, and spearhead of the cultural revolution which enabled the likes of Grieg to carry the nation's music to the world.

As Norway celebrates Bull's bi-centenary, Donald Macleod explores the life of what proves to be one of music history's most exotic characters.

Bull led a Byronic life, rushing around the planet giving concert performances to an adoring public who quickly conferred on him superstar status.

He took the violin to new heights, rivalling even his contemporary Paganini, and famously using an instrument which allowed him to play on all four strings at once.

His life was full of adventure too, as he escaped fires on river boats, street fights, bankruptcy in casinos, and a reputed near death in the River Seine.

He even attempted to start a Norwegian colony in the US, modestly called 'Oleana'.

In doing all this he created an image for himself where legend is almost indivisible from fact.

Fortunately, Donald Macleod has on-hand the undisputed expert on Bull's life, the composer's biographer Harald Herresthal.

They meet in an unexpected location, the idyllic estate of Carreglwyd at the western end of the isle of Anglesey.

It was here that Bull found some rare tranquility while on a UK tour, and where he also composed one of his most enchanting works, which we hear in a live performance given by Calum Smart, finalist in this year's BBC Young Musician competition.

The week's journey also includes intersections with the lives of many of Bull's contemporaries, composers whose work has been largely forgotten.

We hear delicate piano studies from another virtuoso of the day, Agathe Backer-Grøndahl, a Chopin-esque trio from Thomas Tellefsen, and a picturesque opera scene from one of the first people to recognise Bull's prodigious talents, Waldemar Thrane.

And we also hear from Grieg himself, who as a boy was visited by Ole Bull and launched into the world of music.

The week begins with Ole Bull's early career, when one alcoholic musician's over-indulgence gives a first chance for the 8-year-old prodigy to show what he's made of.

There's also chance to hear one of the pair of showpiece concertos which Bull composed for his own instrument.


After the French Revolution, Ole Bull lights the flame for a Norwegian reawakening.

After witnessing the aftermath of French revolution, Ole Bull returns to his home country determined to bring about a cultural earthquake of his own.

Donald Macleod is joined by Bull's biographer Harald Herresthal to hear how the cattle-calls of mountain shepherds and ancient traditions of traditional fiddlers provided exactly the inspiration they needed.


Donald Macleod on Ole Bull's ambition to establish his own Norwegian colony in America.

One ambition eclipsed even Bull's pretensions to be the world's greatest violin virtuoso: a burning desire to set up his own Norwegian colony in the US.

Donald Macleod charts the precipitous rise and fall of the scheme with the help of Bull's biographer Harald Herresthal, and follows the composer as his American tours see him caught up in a fire aboard a steamer and brawling with locals over a glass of whisky.


Donald Macleod on Ole Bull's ambition to revolutionise Norway's musical culture.

Bull's dazzling concerts are matched by a burning ambition to revolutionize the musical culture of his native Norway, even if an attempt to start a music academy ends in failure.

Donald Macleod traces the composer's influence in the music of his contemporaries Edvard Grieg, Johan Svendsen, and the piano virtuoso Agathe Backer-Grøndahl.

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Donald Macleod separates fact from fiction in Bull's life story.

Posterity has seen Bull's life story packed with every imaginable adventure and escapade.

But how much of it can actually be believed? Donald Macleod looks behind the bar fights, extravagant parties and royal dalliances in attempt to discover the real Ole Bull, and with biographer Harrald Herresthal weighs up the composer's real contribution to the blossoming of Norway's musical culture.