Bull was sent to the university of Christiania to study theology. Very soon however we find him the conductor of a musical and dramatic society in that town. At this time political feeling ran high in Norway, and he appears to have taken some part in the agitation. At all events he suddenly left the country and went to Cassel to satisfy an ardent desire of seeing and hearing Spohr, for whose violin compositions he had a sincere admiration. Spohr appears to have behaved somewhat coldly to the rather eccentric and, to him, utterly unknown young enthusiast, and the latter left Cassel much disappointed. He made a short stay at Göttingen, where his boisterous manner involved him in a duel, and then returned to Norway, where he played with much success at public concerts in Bergen and Trondjhem. But it was not till he went to Paris in 1831 that his powers as an executant were fully developed. He failed to gain admittance to the Conservatoire, but it was then that he first heard Paganini, and this constituted, as he himself used to declare, the turning-point of his life. Paganini's playing made an immense impression on him, and he threw himself with the utmost vigour into the pursuit of technical studies in order to emulate the feats performed by the great Italian virtuoso. Meanwhile his limited means were exhausted, and being too proud to ask for further assistance from his father, and failing to get an appointment in one of the orchestras, he fell into serious difficulties. According to one report he attempted in a fit of despair to commit suicide by throwing himself into the Seine; according to another he was attacked by a severe illness brought on by low living and mental anxiety. Fortunately at this time he came under the motherly care of a benevolent Parisian lady, who nursed him, and whose daughter he afterwards married. After his recovery he made his first appearance in Paris (April 18, 1832), assisted by Chopin and Ernst, and then started for Italy, where he created a perfect furore. From this time to the end of his life he continued travelling all over Europe and North America, taking now and then a summer's rest in his native country. He played first in London, May 21, 1836; at the Philharmonic, June 6, and during the next sixteen months he gave 274 concerts in England, Scotland, and Ireland. In 1843 he went to America for the first, and in 1879 for tne fifth and last time. His success and popularity in the States were unbounded, and he began to amass a considerable fortune. He frequently revisited his native land, and made himself a beautiful home near Bergen. To the end of his life he retained a passionate love for the North and his countrymen; and, touched by the abject poverty of many of them, he conceived the idea of founding a Norwegian colony in the States. With a view to the execution of this scheme he acquired a large tract of land (125,000 acres), but, though he was not without natural shrewdness in business matters, he unfortunately fell into the hands of swindlers, who sold to him what was really the property of a third party. Bull was in consequence involved in a troublesome and expensive lawsuit, by which he lost a great part of his capital. But, nothing daunted, he resumed travelling and playing to replace what was lost. On Feb. 5, 1880, he celebrated his 70th birthday in America, and on Aug. 17 of the same year he died at his country seat in Norway, where his death was deplored as a national loss.
Ole Bull was a man of remarkable character and an artist of undoubted genius. All who heard him, or came in personal contact with him, agree that he was far from being an ordinary man. Tall, of athletic build, with large blue eyes and rich flaxen hair, he was the very type of the Norseman, and there was a certain something in his personal appearance and conversation which acted with almost magnetic power on those who approached him. The writer of this article has been assured by personal friends of Ole Bull that his powers as a teller of ghost-stories and other tales was simply irresistible to young and old, and their effect not unlike that of his violin-playing. At the same time it cannot be denied that we find in him unmistakeable traits of charlatanism, such as when he seriously relates (see his Biography, by Sara Bull) that his 'Polacca guerriera' was 'first conceived while gazing alone at midnight on Mount Vesuvius flaming through the darkness,' or when he played the fiddle on the top of the great Pyramid!
Spohr, who was by no means prepossessed in his favour, writes of him in his autobiography:—'His playing in chords and the certainty of his left hand are admirable, but, like Paganini, he sacrifices too many of the noble qualities of the violin to his tricks. His tone, on account of the thinness of the strings he uses, is bad; and owing to the use of an almost flat bridge he can, on the 2nd and 3rd strings, play in the lower positions only, and then only piano. Hence his performances, whenever he does not execute his tricks, are monotonous. We experienced this in his playing of some of Mozart's quartets. At the same time he plays with much feeling, if not with cultivated taste.'
This criticism, as far as it goes, no doubt is fair and correct; but it entirely ignores those peculiarities of Ole Bull's talent which constitute his claim to an eminent position among modern violinists, and explain his success. In the first place his technical proficiency was such as very few violinists have ever attained to. His playing in double-stoppings was perfect; his staccato, upwards and downwards, of the utmost brilliancy; and although he can hardly be considered a serious musician in the highest sense of the term, yet he played with warm and poetical, if somewhat sentimental, feeling. He has often been described as the 'flaxen-haired Paganini,' and, as we have seen, he was to a certain extent influenced by the great Italian. But his imitation hardly went beyond the reproduction of certain technicalities, such as an extensive use of harmonics, pizzicatos with the left hand, and