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About the composers

Ole Bull

Sort-hvitt fotografi av komponisten Ole Bull

Written by: Maria Tripodianos

Ole Bull, udatert. foto: Franz Hanfstaengl/Bergen Offentlige Bibliotek.

Ole Bornemann Bull (1810–1880) was a world-renowned violin virtuoso and composer. He lived and worked at Lysøen, an island outside of Bergen.

Ole Bull was born February 5th, 1810, in an apothecary in Strandgaten in Bergen. Through his keen interest in folk-music he played a central part and was a pioneer within the development of Norwegian culture after the separation from Denmark.

Ole Bull travelled and played almost all over the world during his long career. He was a musician and virtuoso, a networker, inspirator, adventurer, marketer and Norway’s first superstar.

Ole Bull died on August 17th in 1880 on Lysøen and was buried on Assistenkirkegården in Bergen. Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson gave a speech at his funeral and titled him “the People’s first and finest celebration!”.

Famous compositions: “The Herdgirl’s Sunday”, “La Mélancolie”, “Polacca Guerriera”.

Graphic portrait in black and white by the violinist Ole Bull.

Carl Mayer: Ole Bull, ca. 1839. Foto: Bergen Offentlige Bibliotek

Photograph of a street in Bergen in 1870 with wooden old houses. One of the houses is the apothecary where Ole Bull grew up.

Fra Strandgaten hvor Ole Bull vokste opp. Svaneapoteket er det tredje huset på oversiden av gaten. / Streetview from Strandgaten street where Ole Bull grew up, c.a 1870. Foto: Knud Knudsen / Bergen byarkiv.

Black and white graphic portrait of Ole Bull sitting with his violin in hand.

Ole Bull, litografi basert på maleri av Fritz Jensen / lithography based on a painting by Fritz Jensen. Foto: Bergen Offentlige bibliotek

Early years and studies

Ole Bull’s parents took him to concerts and the theatre from an early age. At the age of five he received his first violin, and barely nine years old he made his debut as a soloist with orchestra Det Harmoniske Selskab. In Bergen he was tutored by Danish Johann Henrich Paulsen and later Swedish Mathias Lundholm, both highly skilled musicians and connected to the harmonic orchestra in Bergen.

18 years old Ole Bull goes to Christiania to start his studies at the university. His parents wanted their eldest son to follow the family tradition, and he studies to become a priest – but fails his Latin exam. He asks for his parents’ permission to go to Copenhagen, where he wants to give concerts and study harmony. 21 years old he decides on Paris, but here he must start from scratch without a recognized name or any reputation. He meets rejection after rejection, and he falls ill and have no money.

The breakthrough

He had his breakthrough in 1834, at a concert in Bologna. Several successful concerts earn him favourable reviews, and he returns to Paris in triumph. The next year, he moves on to London where he gives concerts to overwhelming reviews. In the years that followed, he went on an extensive tour of Germany, Russia, Finland and Sweden. Bull had Northern Europe at his feet and is celebrated home in Norway.

First marriage

Alexandrine Félicité Villeminot, called Félicie (1819–1862), becomes Ole Bull’s first wife. They get married in Paris when he is 26 and she is 18. They live in London, and Bull gives hundreds of concerts in Great Britain. Félicie gives birth to their first child, Ole Storm Felix, in 1837.

While in Germany in 1839, Ole Bull receives the tragic message that his firstborn is dead. Later the same year, Félicie gives birth to their second son, who is named Alexander Ole Felix Etienne. The couple’s third son, Thorvald, is born in 1841. This event takes place when the family spends a long-awaited holiday at the family farm in Valestrand outside Bergen.

Photograph of Ole Bulls family depicting his first wife Felicite together with their four children in the age between 4 and 15

Ole Bulls familie: Alexander, Eleonore "Felicie", Lucie, Thorvald og Felicité Bull, Kristiania, 1855. Foto: J. Lindegard / Bergen Offentlige bibliotek.

A life on the move

Bull leaves his family in Paris and travels to the USA in 1843 as the first Norwegian musician. Ha has been announced in advance by his promoter as “the world’s greatest violinist”, and his first concert in New York is received with enthusiasm. Bull then travels on to the South and then on to Havana, Cuba.

Meanwhile, Félicie is unhappy in Paris, and their fourth son, Ernst Bornemann, dies only five months old without his father having even seen him. Because of the unreliable postal delivery and Bull’s constant travelling, the news doesn’t reach him until half a year later.

After a series of concerts on the American continent, Bull gives a farewell-concert in New York in autumn 1845. The next year he goes back on tour, in France, Algeria and Spain. In 1846, their sixth child, their daughter Lucie Edvardine, is born.

Finally, back in Norway, he throws himself into various projects. He organizes a successful concert with Myllarguten, composes the classical piece “Et Seterbesøg” and announces his plan to establish Det Norske Theater in Bergen.


In 1852, Ole Bull purchased over 10, 000 acres of land from a land speculator, and he establishes a Norwegian colony, Oleana. During the first year, over 300 Norwegian settlers arrived, but the land was difficult to farm, and with the nearest railway about 100 kilometres away, it was a hard life. Already the next year, people started to leave the colony, and Bull transferred the land back to the seller.

In 1855 he gets involved in yet another grand project: the establishment of an opera in New York. This turns out to be a costly mistake and the opera has to close after only five performances. A series of financial losses and unfortunate transactions follow, and back in Norway the rumours of Bull’s problems circulate. Félicie receives neither letters nor money, and she sends her eldest son, Alexander, who is only 17 years old, to the USA to bring his father home. Instead of returning, Ole Bull takes his son on tour for a year.

Photo of Ole Bull standing and playing his violin.

Ole Bull. Foto: ukjent / Bergen Offentlige bibliotek.

Portrait photo of Ole Bull's son Alexander as a young man.

Alexander Bull, San Fransisco, ca. 1868. Foto: Edouard / Bergen Offentlige bibliotek.

Photo of Ole Bull standig with his violin under his right arm.

Ole Bull, San Fransisco, ca. 1868. Foto: Edouard / Bergen Offentlige bibliotek.

Photo of Ole Bull playing the violin.

Ole Bull, ca. 1862. Foto: Georg E. Hansen / Bergen Offentlige bibliotek.


Back in Norway, Ole Bull is now closely connected to names such as Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. The story says he meets 15-year-old Edvard Grieg (1843–1907) one summer as he is visiting the boy’s parents. After having heard him play, Bull advises his parents to let the young Grieg study abroad. Already the same autumn Grieg is sent to Leipzig for musical studies.

Fra 1860 to 1862, Bull tours Europe. During these years his relationship with his wife has greatly deteriorated. Félicie is struggling with her mental health, and she dies in February 1862, only 43 years old.

Second marriage and purchase of Lysøen

Ole Bull keeps on travelling, to Moscow, Paris and back to the USA, together with his son Alexander. There he meets young Sarah Torp (1850–1911), and he marries her when he is 60 and she merely 20. Their first and only child, the daughter Sara Olea, is born in 1871.

During a visit to Norway, Ole Bull buys the island Lysøen in Os municipality outside Bergen to build a home for his new family. The year after, the house is completed.

In 1876 he climbs the Cheops Pyramid in Cairo, where he plays at the top on his 66th birthday.

Portrait of Ole Bulls second wife Sara Thorp Bull.

Sara Chapman Thorp Bull. Foto: ukjent/unknown.

Photo of Ole Bull and his american familiy, having picnic outside on the porch of his grand villa at Lysøen.

Ole Bull, Sarah og resten av familien foran villaen på Lysøen / Ole Bull, Sarah and the family at Lysøen. Foto: Knud Knudsen / MARCUS, UiB.

Photo of Ole Bull holding his baby daughter Olea.

Ole Bull med datteren Olea. Fotograf ukjent.

Photo of Ole Bull and his wife Sara Thorp together with friends, all standing outside on the front porch of a house dressed in beautiful clothes.

Hagefest hos Thomas Heftye med venner. Ole Bull i midten, Sara Thorp til venstre / Garden party with friends. Ole Bull is seen in the middle, Sara Thorp to the left, 1870. Foto: ukjent / Bergen Offentlige bibliotek.

Photo portrait of the elderly Ole Bull.

Ole Bull, New York. Foto: Abraham Bogardus / Bergen Offentlige bibliotek.

Towards the end

Ole Bull loved celebrating the 17th of May in Bergen. During a stay in Norway in 1789 it is the last time he gets to do this, and the people of Bergen celebrates him with a song. On Midsummer Eve he gives what is probably his last concert in Norway, in the music hall at Lysøen with 200 people attending.

During a concert in Chicago the year after, towards the end of his last USA tour, Ole Bull feels unwell. Ill and reduced from cancer he insists on returning to Norway to recover. On August 17th he asks his wife Sarah to play Mozart’s requiem on the organ. To the sound of these notes Ole Bull passes away, 70 years old, in his home at Lysøen.

Bull was buried with full honours on August 23, 1880, on Assistentkirkegården in Bergen. Thousands of people flanked the route where the procession passed, and his old friends held emotional speeches.

Edvard Grieg expressed the following at Bull’s funeral:

(In Norwegian) Fordi du ble en heder for vårt land som ingen annen. Fordi du hevet vårt folk opp mot kunstens lyse høyder som ingen annen. Fordi du var banebryter for vår unge, nasjonale musikk. En trofast, varmhjertet erobrende, som ingen, ingen annen. Fordi du har nedlagt et frø som skal spire i fremtiden, og som kommende slekter skal velsigne deg for. Med tusener og atter tusener takk for alt dette, legger jeg i den norske tonekunsts navn, denne laurbærkrans på din kiste. (Translated) Because you were a glory to our nation as no one else. Because you lifted our people up to art’s bright peaks as no one else. Because you were a pioneer for our young, national music. A faithful, warm-hearted conqueror, like no one else, like absolutely no one else. Because you have planted a seed which will blossom in the future and for which generations to come will thank you. With thousands upon thousands of thanks for all this, in the name of the Norwegian art of music I place this laurel wreath upon your coffin.

Edvard Grieg
Ole Bulls coffin standing inside the music hall of Lysøen, decorated with ribbons and heather flowers.

Ole Bulls kiste på Lysøen / Ole Bulls coffin at Lysøen, 23. august 1880. Foto: Knud Knudsen / MARCUS, UiB.

Photograph from Ole Bulls funeral in Bergen depicting the coffins arrival at the docks and thousands of people waiting for the funeral procession trough the city.

Fra Ole Bulls begravelse / From Ole Bull's funeral in Bergen, 23. august 1880. Foto: Knud Knudsen / MARCUS, UiB.

Ole Bull's funerary urn at the Assistentkirkegaarden graveyard in Bergen.

Ole Bulls gravsted i Bergen / Ole Bull's cinerary urn in Bergen, ca. 1923. Foto: C.A. Erichsen / Bergen Offentlige bibliotek.