A leading concert violinist inspired in part by folk fiddlers and, as a composer, a pioneer in Norwegian musical nationalism, Ole Bull was the first internationally famous musician from Norway and remains a national hero in his country. Bull began studying the violin at age 5; within four years he was soloing with the Bergen Harmonic Society. An eccentric and rebel, Bull eventually whittled down his violin's bridge so he could play chords on all four strings, took up a long and heavy bow as in folk music, and found inspiration not only from his mainstream teachers, who were pupils of Viotti and Baillot, but also from peasant fiddlers. To his good luck, he failed his entrance exams when sent to the university in Christiania, and was spared an education in theology. Music became his career.
He began to travel for study and concertizing in 1829, specializing in touring to out-of-the-way communities; during the 1836-1837 season alone, he gave 274 concerts in England and Ireland. Bull was popular with the public, especially in America, although professional musicians, such as Ludwig Spohr, were not impressed by his abilities, deeming his performances wayward and his compositions formless.
Bull resolved early on that his homeland should produce its own national art; he did his part by incorporating folk tunes into his own compositions and using them as the basis of improvisations. In Paris in 1833 he introduced to good notice his Souvenirs de Norvège for Hardanger fiddle, string quartet, bass, and flute. His music required such an idiosyncratic approach, and so depended on what were regarded as tawdry effects that could hardly be achieved on a normal violin, that it had little life beyond Bull's own hands. Yet Bull developed intense popularity throughout Europe and in America, befriending Liszt, and publicizing Norwegian landscape and culture.
Back home he urged other musicians to bring more of their national heritage to their music. But his institution-building schemes met with little success. In 1849 he founded the Norwegian Theater in Bergen, but failed to win a state subsidy. (The theater did provide a home, however, for the young Henrik Ibsen.) In 1852 Bull set up an experimental socialist community in Pennsylvania, but this collapsed within a year. Yet he continued performing to acclaim until his death, including a 66th birthday concert from atop Cheops' pyramid. Today his compositions seem alternately sentimental and exhibitionistic, but their innovative, improvisatory nature earns greater respect.