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If Ole Bull had been born without arms, what a rank he would have taken among the poets--because it is in him, & if he couldn't violin it out, he would talk it out, since of course it would have to come out.

– Mark Twain


Home / Articles / Ole Bull and folk music
Jan 04, 2010
by Håkon Asheim

Ole Bull and folk music

Ole Bull was an ardent devotee of Norwegian folk music. This both due to his personal familiarity with it and because he himself could play the Hardanger fiddle.

For Bull, folk music was a cornerstone of the national culture he was himself involved in building up.
Bull’s father was a pharmacist in Bergen. Their home was full of music. Already at the age of eight, Ole Bull performed at the highest level with the city orchestra Musikselskabet Harmonien. At the same time, he was making contact with an entirely different music culture; his family summered at Valestrand in Osterøy where he spent time with several Hardanger fiddle players. These included Ola Brakvatn (1798-1885) and Magne Kleiveland, “Einlidskarden” (1805-1892).
Bull learned Hardanger fiddle tunes such as brureslåtten (bridal melody) “Sylkje-Per” and hallingen “Hopparen”, which he played frequently later in life. As an adult, he kept in touch with the local people and fiddle players and bought the property on Valestrand. Over time, he also became acquainted with folk music from other regions.
Breakthrough as Norwegian international violinist

As a student in Christiania, Ole Bull became good friends with Henrik Wergeland and was much influenced by his nationalist and radical ideas. Discovering a distinctive Norwegian tone in music became a primary concern for Bull.
1831 found Bull in Paris. It was no easy task to succeed as a violinist, but in 1833 he held a concert which gained him the recognition he needed. He played not only violin, but also the Hardanger fiddle. The program featured the piece “Souvenirs of Norway” for the farmer’s fiddle (as the Hardanger fiddle was often called), string quartet and flute. The music is now lost, but Bull most likely used the melodies he knew, arranging them as he saw fit. The Hardanger fiddle was an unknown, exotic instrument, and Bull no doubt calculated that it would awaken interest in Paris.
From Paris, the tour continued to Italy. It was here in Bologna in 1834 that Bull made his breakthrough. He quickly rose to international stardom. On his travels around the world, he often encountered regional folk tunes and improvised with these in his local concerts, or incorporated them into his compositions. This proved immensely popular. Also Norwegian folk music played an important part in his works. The well-known piece “Et Sæterbesøg” is a composite of folk tunes, interludes resembling country airs,  his own melody ”Sæterjentens Søndag”, and virtuoso passages. Such rhapsodies or potpourris of familiar and characteristic melodies were a popular music form in the 1800s. The idea caught on with fiddle players towards the end of the century, a period referred to as “concert time” in Hardanger fiddle music.
ole bull med fele

 “Myllarguten” in the spotlight

The first fiddler to begin holding concerts was Myllarguten – Torgeir Augundsson (approx. 1801-1872) from Telemark. Ole Bull played a key role in bringing this about – he held great respect for  Myllargutens approach to music.

Myllarguten lived in poor conditions, as many local fiddlers did at that time, and 1848 was a particularly onerous year. Concurrently, there was growing interest in the national romantic in Norwegian culture. In December of that year, Ole Bull delivered a glowing speech to students in Christiania about “the Norwegian” in culture, proclaiming that people living in the capital should hear a “national treasure” like Myllargutten. In January of 1849, it was announced that Myllarguten would hold a concert in the Freemasons’ Hall on the 15th, “accompanied” by Ole Bull. That the performance was to be held in that time’s most prestigious concert venue, accompanied by one of the world’s most esteemed violinists, was a major recognition of folk music and of a village fiddler. For Myllarguten, the concert meant even more; the event was a success and the revenue allowed him to purchase a farm!
A Norwegian theater
The same year, Ole Bull was engaged in establishing a Norwegian theater for Norwegian performers. Until that time, actors in Norway had been predominantly Danish, the theater music in the main in the German style, played by Germans. It was seen as vital that the also the music should be Norwegian.

The theater opened in Bergen on the 2nd of January, 1850.  One of the first performances was Wergeland’s “Fjeldstuen”. Ole Bull arranged the music so that the orchestra’s playing evoked Hardanger fiddles, and folk dancers from sundry parts of Western Norway sprang to the vigorous fiddle-playing of Ole Bull himself. Bull had sent word to Myllarguten in the hopes that the fiddler might become a feature of the new theater, but the fiddler performed so often in March and April that the urban audience’s interest in him seemed to be waning. In the ensuing years, Myllarguten toured Norway, Denmark and Sweden, inspiring also other Hardanger fiddlers to try their luck as concert artists. Around 1900, many “concert fiddlers” enjoyed ample success, also in Scandinavian circles in the United States. Still in our time, concerts and stage performances are important venues for folk music and dance; here we see the traces of Bull’s pioneering contributions.
Ole Bull and folk music in retrospect
Bull’s enthusiasm for folk music encouraged also others, not least Edvard Grieg, who found central impulses in folk music. He said, “It was Ole Bull who awakened my determination to compose characteristically Norwegian music.” Moreover, Bull’s thoughts still influence our time. During the 1860s, he attempted to establish a Norwegian music academy, but failed to obtain Stortinget’s backing . These same plans and ideas, along with Bull’s high ambitions for folk music and dance, were a driving force when Digbjørn Bernhoft Osa (1910-1990) founded the Ole Bull Academy, a principal course and educational institution for folk music.
Ole Bull’s use of folk music was radical. This can be difficult to understand today, when folk music is deemed a natural aspect of a well-rounded cultural life – in concerts, festivals, media and education. Not everyone is aware that essential groundwork for this development was provided by Ole Bull’s efforts to advance folk music and highlight folk musicians.
Web resources
A ”halling” written by Ole Bull is included in Feleverkene, published on the Norsk Folkemusikksamling web page:
The music is found at:

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last modified Aug 27, 2010 10:17 AM