The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Lydia M. Child/Ole Bull

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I have twice heard Ole Bull. I scarcely dare to tell the impression his music made upon me. But casting aside all fear of ridicule for excessive enthusiasm, I will say that it expressed to me more of the infinite, than I ever saw, or heard, or dreamed of, in the realms of Nature, Art, or Imagination.

They tell me his performance is wonderfully skilful; but I have not enough of scientific knowledge to judge of the difficulties he overcomes. I can readily believe of him, what Bettina says of Beethoven, that “his spirit creates the inconceivable, and his fingers perform the impossible.” He played on four strings at once, and produced the rich harmony of four instruments. His bow touched the strings as if in sport, and brought forth light leaps of sound, with electric rapidity, yet clear in their distinctness. He made his violin sing with flute-like voice, and accompany itself with a guitar, which came in ever and anon like big drops of musical rain. All this I felt as well as heard, without the slightest knowledge of quartetto or staccato. How he did it, I know as little as I know how the sun shines, or the spring brings forth its blossoms. I only know that music came from his soul into mine, and carried it upward to worship with the angels.

Oh, the exquisite delicacy of those notes! Now tripping and fairy-like, as the song of Ariel; now soft and low, as the breath of a sleeping babe, yet clear as a fine-toned bell; now high, as a lark soaring upward, till lost among the stars!

Noble families sometimes double their names, to distinguish themselves from collateral branches of inferior rank. I have doubled his, and in memory of the Persian nightingale have named him Ole Bulbul.

Immediately after a deep, impassioned, plaintive melody, an adagio of his own composing, which uttered the soft, low breathing of a mother’s prayer, rising to the very agony of supplication, a voice in the crowd called for Yankee Doodle. It shocked me like harlequin tumbling on the altar of a temple. I had no idea that he would comply with what seemed to me the absurd request. But, smiling, he drew the bow across his violin, and our national tune rose on the air, transfigured, in a veil of glorious variations. It was Yankee Doodle in a state of clairvoyance—a wonderful proof of how the most common and trivial may be exalted by the influx of the infinite.

When urged to join the throng who are following this star of the north, I coolly replied, “I never like lions; moreover, I am too ignorant of musical science to appreciate his skill.” But when I heard this man, I at once recognised a power that transcends science, and which mere skill may toil after in vain. I had no need of knowledge to feel this subtle influence, any more than I needed to study optics to perceive the beauty of the rainbow. It overcame me like a miracle. I felt that my soul was, for the first time, baptized in music; that my spiritual relations were somehow changed by it, and that I should henceforth be otherwise than I had been. I was so oppressed with “the exceeding weight of glory,” that I drew my breath with difficulty. As I came out of the building, the street sounds hurt me with their harshness. The sight of ragged boys and importunate coachmen jarred more than ever on my feelings. I wanted that the angels that had ministered to my spirit should attune theirs also. It seemed to me as if such music should bring all the world into the harmonious beauty of divine order. I passed by my earthly home, and knew it not. My spirit seemed to be floating through infinite space. The next day I felt like a person who had been in a trance, seen heaven opened, and then returned to earth again.

This doubtless appears very excessive in one who has passed the enthusiasm of youth, with a frame too healthy and substantial to be conscious of nerves, and with a mind instinctively opposed to lion-worship. In truth, it seems wonderful to myself; but so it was. Like a romantic girl of sixteen, I would pick up the broken string of his violin, and wear it as a relic, with a half superstitious feeling that some mysterious magic of melody lay hidden therein.

I know not whether others were as powerfully wrought upon as myself; for my whole being passed into my ear, and the faces around me were invisible. But the exceeding stillness showed that the spirits of the multitude bowed down before the magician. While he was playing, the rustling of a leaf might have been heard; and when he closed, the tremendous bursts of applause told how the hearts of thousands leaped up like one.

His personal appearance increases the charm. He looks pure, natural, and vigorous, as I imagine Adam in Paradise. His inspired soul dwells in a strong frame, of admirable proportions, and looks out intensely from his earnest eyes. Whatever may be his theological opinions, the religious sentiment must be strong in his nature; for Teutonic reverence, mingled with impassioned aspiration, shines through his honest northern face, and runs through all his music. I speak of him as he appears while he and his violin converse together. When not playing, there is nothing observable in his appearance, except genuine health, the unconscious calmness of strength in repose, and the most unaffected simplicity of dress and manner. But when he takes his violin, and holds it so caressingly to his ear, to catch the faint vibration of its strings, it seems as if “the angels were whispering to him.” As his fingers sweep across the strings, the angels pass into his soul, give him their tones, and look out from his eyes, with the wondrous beauty of inspiration. His motions sway to the music, like a tree in the winds; for soul and body accord. In fact, “his soul is but a harp, which an infinite breath modulates; his senses are but strings, which weave the passing air into rhythm and cadence.”

If it be true, as has been said, that a person ignorant of the rules of music, who gives himself up to its influence, without knowing whence it comes, or whither it goes, experiences, more than the scientific, the passionate joy of the composer himself, in his moments of inspiration, then was I blest in my ignorance. While I listened, music was to my soul what the atmosphere is to my body; it was the breath of my inward life. I felt, more deeply than ever, that music is the highest symbol of the infinite and holy. I heard it moan plaintively over the discords of society, and the dimmed beauty of humanity. It filled me with inexpressible longing to see man at one with Nature and with God; and it thrilled me with joyful prophecy that the hope would pass into glorious fulfilment.

With renewed force I felt what I have often said, that the secret of creation lay in music. “A voice to light gave being.” Sound led the stars into their places, and taught chemical affinities to waltz into each other’s arms.

“By one pervading spirit
Of tones and numbers all things are controlled;
As sages taught, where faith was found, to merit
Initiation in that mystery old.”

Music is the soprano, the feminine principle, the heart of the universe. Because it is the voice of Love,—because it is the highest type, and aggregate expression of passional attraction, therefore it is infinite; therefore it pervades all space, and transcends all being, like a divine influx. What the tone is to the word, what expression is to the form, what affection is to thought, what the heart is to the head, what intuition is to argument, what insight is to policy, what religion is to philosophy, what holiness is to heroism, what moral influence is to power, what woman is to man—is music to the universe. Flexile, graceful, and free, it pervades all things, and is limited by none. It is not poetry, but the soul of poetry; it is not mathematics, but it is in numbers, like harmonious proportions in cast iron; it is not painting, but it shines through colours, and gives them their tone; it is not dancing, but it makes all gracefulness of motion; it is not architecture, but the stones take their places in harmony with its voice, and stand in “petrified music.” In the words of Bettina—“Every art is the body of music, which is the soul of every art; and so is music, too, the soul of love, which also answers not for its working; for it is the contact of divine with human.”

But I must return from this flight among the stars, to Ole Bulbul′s violin; and the distance between the two is not so great as it appears.

Some, who never like to admit that the greatest stands before them, say that Paganini played the Carnival of Venice better than his Norwegian rival. I know not. But if ever laughter ran along the chords of a musical instrument with a wilder joy, if ever tones quarrelled with more delightful dissonance, if ever violin frolicked with more capricious grace, than Ole Bulbul’s, in that fantastic whirl of melody, I envy the ears that heard it.