Norwegian violinist Ole Bull plays beautiful music, does business in Stillwater
There have been many performers who have performed in Stillwater. Last week we went over a few that visited the Grand Opera House. Even before the opera house, many nationally- and internationally-known artists came to Stillwater. One of these artists was the Norwegian violinist Ole Bull.
Bull was born on Feb. 5, 1810, in Bergen, Norway. At the age of five, Bull was given a violin and by age eight, he could play in the weekly string quartet meetings at his home. He made his first public concert solo at the age of nine.
He went to Christiania, Norway, in 1828 to read theology and was planning to go into the ministry, but failed the entrance exam. Bull then devoted himself to musical theory and composition and made his first trip outside Norway in 1829, when he went to Copenhagen and Kassel. In 1839, he had given nearly 200 concerts in Germany and Austria and was in London in 1840.
His first trip to the United States was in 1843. He quickly found the U.S. to his liking and in his later years wrote, “My relationship to the Americans is that of an adopted son.” He returned to Europe and came back to the United States nine years later.
In 1852, Bull was in the United States where he got involved with the establishment of a colony or settlement, called New Norway, to be centered around a town called “Oleona” named for himself. He purchased more than 11,000 acres of land in Potters County, Pa., and in September 1852, the first Norwegian settlers moved in. The entire project was hastily gone into and a year later, Bull had sold back to his investors the property he purchased for the same price he had paid.
With the financial responsibilities Bull had with the immigrants, it found him going on tour again, this time with his eight-year-old sister-in-law, Adelina Patti.
In 1855, back in New York, Bull tried unsuccessfully to establish a permanent opera house at the Academy of Music. The effort ended up in many arguments and was touted in the New York newspapers as “the great Opera House war.”
In 1856, Bull and his sister-in-law were on tour again. On Saturday, July 19, 1856, Bull performed at the Presbyterian Church in Stillwater. The Stillwater newspaper, the St. Croix Union, of July 18 said, “Ole Bull gives a concert at the Presbyterian Church to-morrow evening. Our citizens ought to embrace this opportunity of hearing the greatest instrumental musician of the age. He occupies the same position among instrumental musicians that Jenny Lind did to the vocal. He equals Paganini.”
The following weeks paper, July 25, had the review of the great concert. In part, the St. Croix Union said that Ole Bull “answered fully all our expectations. That he is without rival as a violinist…” However, the paper had not so kind words for Adelina Patti.
“The St. Paul papers spoke highly of the singing of Adelina Patti.” said the St. Croix Union “They called her the little witch, and extolled her to the skies generally. We regret to say that she is not, in any sense, a favorite here. Her performances were, with one exception, extremely impuissant. We verily believe we could pick up a dozen ladies round town who could sing ‘Home’ better than she did.
The St. Paul papers spoke of her as being almost a match for Jenny Lind. We have never heard Jenny, but if she can sing no better than Miss Adelina Patti did here, we hereby proffer to her our most profound pity. — Perhaps Miss Patti thought we were a plebian, unsophisticated and uncivilized audience; perhaps she did not like the red-shirts that condescended to hear her music, and this is the true reason why she sang so shabbily.”
The criticism did not seem to affect the master violinist. Bull was scheduled to perform again that following Tuesday, but because of sickness, he did not. However, Bull took a liking to Stillwater; some reports say he went fishing and he also purchased 20 building lots in Stillwater’s Coopers Addition from Murdock & Carter. The area is just south of the Stillwater County Club today.
Bull returned to Bergen, Norway in August 1857. He later returned to the United States several other times, and after his wife died in 1862, he married the 20-year-old daughter of a Wisconsin senator in 1870. He would from then on, live both in the United States and Norway.
Ole Bull, possibly the greatest violinist of his time, died on Aug. 17, 1880, in Norway. His influences spanned many continents as well as the immigration of many Norwegians to the United States. He never sold the lots he purchased in Stillwater, and in the 1890s, a statue of the musician was placed in Minneapolis’ Loring Park.
Brent Peterson is executive director of the Washington County Historical Society.