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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


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May 12, 2010

The sound search continues

Since our last update, the crew from Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) has been in Bologna and Tel Aviv, hunting for the sound that caused women to swoon and men to loose their top hats.

Trond Lillealtern, Thomas Hellum and Steinar Birkeland are the brains behind a documentary about Ole Bull’s sound.

By taking the young violinists Eldbjørg and Ragnhild Hemsing to places Bull went and having them re-experience events from his life, the team hopes to discover the violin virtuoso’s sound. Bull almost never transcribed the music he himself played and there are no recordings of him. These factors give him an almost mythical status.

Inspired by opera
Bologna was where Bull made his breakthrough in 1834. Here he also met and became close friends with the beautiful and famous opera singer Maria Malibran. ‘It was said that Bull imitated the human voice when he played’, confides Lillealtern, ‘so in Bologna we asked the Hemsings to listen to an Italian opera singer and then try to copy what they heard’.

An opera singer was also asked to sing Bull’s music.
Lillealtern relates that after a few bars he exclaimed, ‘This is opera!’ The singer recognized elements from several Italian operas in Bull’s music, so the sound hunters knew they were on the right track. Bull drew inspiration from opera and the human voice.

Israeli Bull expert

From Bologna the illusive sound drew the team to Israel. Many people perhaps do not know that the world’s foremost expert on Bull’s violins lives in Tel Aviv.
‘It was here, in Amnon Weinstein’s workshop, that we really found Bull’s sound’, claims Hellum.

Weinstein has studied all photos of Bull holding a violin, and with two exceptions, he is always holding the same one – a 16th century Gasparo. Bull’s favourite violin is lost to us today, but in his own hunt for Bull’s sound, Weinstein built a new version of this instrument.

‘All the essential details were there; strings made from sheep’s intestines (called ‘catgut’, today most strings are metal), a long bow à la Bull, a flat bridge’, says Lillealtern.

After having studied the minute details of Bull’s life, the Hemsing sisters played his composition Polacca Guerriera on an instrument that is perhaps the closest anyone has ever come to creating a genuine Bull violin.

‘Historical moment’, Weinstein is reported to have commented.

Style change

While making the documentary, the Hemsings have gained insight into Ole Bull, as a person as well as an artist. Both girls had played his music earlier, but now their style has changed.

‘When I now play Bull’s music, I am more conscious of the underlying character and how he, I think, would have played it’, says Ragnhild. She always knew about Bull but he was like a distant hero. Now she knows more about the man behind the myth.

Have you and your sister discovered Bull’s sound?
‘This is difficult to answer. But after all the attempts and trips we’ve made, I think no one else has come up with the same kind of sound as Eldbjørg and I have’, replies Ragnhild Hemsing.

Jakten på Bulls tone will be broadcast in the fall of 2010.

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last modified May 27, 2010 01:20 PM