Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ole Bull and Oleana

Ole Bull, well known Norwegian concert violinist, composer and social philosopher, would have turned 200 earlier this year. There has been no hullabaloo like that which has attended the bicentenary celebrations of, say, Frederic Chopin and Felix Mendelssohn, his fellow musicians. Bull remains a misty but controversial figure, revered, it seems, by his fellow countrymen--including the unquestionably great composer Edvard Grieg, whose career he helped promote. On the other hand, he is vilified on at least one website whose url shall remain unacknowledged, at least by me. I don't like passing on disagreeable opinions, especially when I don't know their origins.
Was Bull a truly great violinist, like his Italian contemporary Niccolo Paganini? Probably not. Paganini was the fiddler of the 19th century. But Bull did a lot of concertizing, including five long tours in the United States. ( Presumably we Americans still were unsophisticated enough in music to appreciate anyone who came along--at least, this seems to be the view of the anti-Bull website.)
Well, then, was Bull a great composer? Again, probably not. It seems he only composed 100 works. Of these, just 10 survive; and I have heard only one of them. I would characterize it as pleasant, but not exceptional. It is possible that great composers have lived and died, and all their works have been lost--but Bull's "Solitude On The Mountain" does not seem like a remnant of a composer of that caliber.
He was evidently a great showman--he once played his violin atop Egypt's Great Pyramid--a great dreamer, and a man who wished humanity well. This is a lot. And his big dream involved Pennsylvania.
He wanted to set up a colony for Norwegian farmers, so they could have a better life. His musical career had made him rich; and so in 1852 he bought 11,000 acres in Potter County--an area known as the Black Forest of Pennsylvania. It seems to be one of those areas that needs to be developed very carefully; otherwise in 50 years it will be a desert studded with natural gas derricks, through which poisoned streams meander. Right now it seems still to be wooded.
Here Bull proposed to establish his colony, to be known as Oleana. There are those (notably those on the anti-Bull website) who think the man egotistically planned to name the place after himself; but in fact, "Oleana" seems to mean something like "New Norway'. Or even "Heaven". There is a song, "Oleana", in which the place sounds like a poor man's version of the Holy City, jammed with good things to eat and drink.
Unfortunately for Bull and his colonists, the Pennsylvania Oleana didn't turn out to be like that at all. The colonists lacked the skills (or time) to clear the land and plant crops; they were not woodsmen. Some died and were buried in the forest; the rest moved on after a year to farmland in places like Minnesota, North and South Dakota.
Today all that is left of "New Norway", Bull's vision of heaven, can be found in Ole Bull State Park. It consists of the colonists' cemetery, and the remains of Bull's "castle"--a log cabin in which he never got a chance to live.
As to the dreamer himself, he died in 1880, back home in Norway; Edward Grieg delivered his eulogy.

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