Europe is about to resume the jewel she has lent us for a season, and we trust the last moments of its radiance upon ourselves will be duly valued by all who are fitted to view from the true point, which we take to be that of one’s own heart.
Christopher North said in the Noctes Ambrosianæ that the world could never want a subject for discussion, since, when all others were exhausted, still would remain the question “Whether or no is Pope a poet.” For the present a similar dispute as to the claims of Ole Bull to the honors of genius has superseded that in the old world, and been continued among ourselves. The two parties engaged in the former controversy still maintain their places in this, those who decided that Pope was not a poet being quite sure that Ole Bull is and vice versa.
The dispute is the old one between Intellect and Feeling. With the highest geniuses these are sometimes so in harmony that all kinds of minds, all states of character are satisfied, all kinds of spirits obey one magician. But, even with genius so undeniable as those of Dante and Milton, this is not the case. Many souls meet them unmoved. In the case of such geniuses as Petrarch and Spenser, it requires an unspoiled nature, unspoiled by vice or the pedantry, either of learning or practical duty, and tenderness of heart to receive the influence. The genius of Ole Bull is sweet, brilliant, romantic and tender, not grand, severe and commanding. He may fail thoroughly to satisfy the requisitions of science, he may, at times, dally with his art and do things with the light freedom of a child, rather than the grave earnestness of a man. We do not know enough to say that it is so, but it would not surprise us from what we have felt of the nature of his mind that it should be so. But we shall ask no pedant’s leave to say that he has genius and great genius; our own souls have decided that such must eventually be the verdict of the world at large.—And, if he fail to please some really noble and accomplished priests of the Muses, we entertain no doubt that the Muses themselves would bend a willing ear to his lay and treat him as a darling child.
We admit, however, that his mind is rather subjective than universal, and can understand why many, even, who are neither pedantic nor prejudiced should fail to answer to his call. He is not made to develope the spirit to new consciousness so much as to awaken sympathetic chords ready for his touch. He might sometimes do the former, but it would only be when the mind was waiting for some such influence.
To his sweet influence we ourselves are indebted for pure delight at the time of hearing, rather than thoughts called forth, nor should we attempt, but at the wish of others, to analyze what we have received, but content ourselves vaguely, as often in the enjoyment of Nature, with the memory of beautiful hours. In our first impressions of Ole Bull, we could not at all separate himself from his music. His manners charmed us; they were those of a princely child, used to the world and to crowds, but who has never been much affected by them. He was at ease, but he had no worldly manner; what was called awkwardness in him was charming to us: his little ways were the faithful expressions of his nature; would that every one were thus awkward! had we free play of an individual nature, (restrained only by a knowledge how to avoid habits that interfere with the comfort of others) instead of automaton or merely conventional manners, social intercourse would not be the weariness it now generally is to those who are not tainted with vanity and have no thirst for gossip. Did we see men as we do children, it would be entertaining, and just so do we see Ole Bull in face of his strange and curious audience. Like the child, he looks shy, but like the child what he does at all must be done freely. And, happier than the child, he can always speak freely—through the violin.
His violin seems, indeed, a living companion, the counterpart of himself. When we read the objection of a critic to the “Niagara,” that Ole Bull expressed the feminine feeling of the scene, we thought this answered to much we have felt about his companionship with his violin. The spirit of his lyre answers him like a female friend—a bride! It is himself, but a second self, as Milton’s Eve came to Adam; and his gestures seem, oftentimes, to express that he listens for it, and that, if awakened by himself, he knows not, except in hope, what he shall awaken.
In our first hearings of him, “The Mountains of Norway” seemed to express what was congenial with him, yet not especially his. The “Adagio Religioso” is just what its name promises. It will ever be to us a recollection of a sacred interest; and if any deny genius to the mind to whom we own this, we reply, we have at least heard from him the pure voice of the soul. If it was not genius, it was something higher.
The “Polacca Guerriera” is a noble composition. There is a fullness and compass of feeling in it, which raise a glow in all the frame as we remember it. We have heard this composition was the work of a few still night-hours, though it had long lain in the mind of the artist, seeking to be born. We should think so from its concentrated yet soaring character.
The “Recollections of Havana” gave us much pleasure. In this, as since in the “Niagara” and “Solitude of the Prairies,” we have been delighted with the perfect naturalness with which the effect is given of one wandering, sometimes sunk in the spirit of the scene, sometimes startled back into individual consciousness, and even to special memories. In this view we heard, with sensations of peculiar pleasure, the uprise of the notes “On the lake where droops the willow,” amid the rush and roar of Niagara. Such special memories, especially of snatches of song, where there is an ear and a heart for song come—
to break the absorbtion of the deepest reverie, casting into the present an arrow from the past.
It was not the least charming part of these evenings to us, when Ole Bull, being encored, would come forward with his sweet shy smile, whose mild electricity at once pervaded the assembly, and play those familiar airs “Auld Robin Gray,” “The Last Rose of Summer,” “On the lake where droops the Willow.” We were happy to see how much their simple tenderness was to him; happier to hear it endowed with its highest character, for those airs without losing anything of the simple humanity of their tenderness, seemed to be transfigured, made celestial, by the pure tone of his instrument and his exquisite playing of them.
But, of all we heard from him, nothing impressed us so much as the piece called “Sicilian e Tarantella.” That seemed something unique, the type of a class of things of which we were vaguely conscious but had never seen or heard any full or even distinct expression. His manner in playing it; the hair jerked over his forehead and the entranced look of his eyes in the wild, full part, gave us an idea of the excitements of gambling; the redoubling and tripling of force upon this part produce indescribable sensations; here was electricity again, but no longer mild;—fiery, rapid, intense; his electricity and ours arrested, spent, lavished on the stroke of the bow. We know not the original meaning of this composition, but it awakened throngs of emotions and shadows of thoughts, dissimilar in form, but homogenous in nature. Some of these are expressed in the following lines, where the writer was thrown into a particular frame of mind and led to understand peculiar crises in life by this piece. They were written the night after hearing it and, being suggested by it, should express its nature, if not its precise meaning.
I knew those monumental thoughts again,
When o’er the buried hopes of early days
Pure marble tablets I had hoped to raise,
With cherub forms to promise from my pain,
With ashes urned,—that nought could e’er profane.
It came,—the second, sad, impassioned strain!
The heart that could not hear a life-long pain,
Not heeding all the warning of its fate,
Yielding the only solace of its state,—
—Yielded itself to fond delusions’s tide,
Laid by the breast plate of a noble pride;
Waking to know itself the light one’s scorn,
Cursing the hour that ever it was born.
But where is the third?—O artist sad and wild,
O where the strain, thou dear and ardent child,
That shows me how to rise from the abyss
To which the downward way so easy is?
“Love, Hope, and Self-Esteem” all “to depart,”
O God! at least the barren third restore
Without that one help I can bear no more.
Two friends asked one another what had been their thoughts during a performance of one of Meyerbeer’s compositions. One had thought of the flight of eagles; the other of Summer lightning; and, whatever was really the meaning of the composition, it must have been correspondent with such images. So of the “Sicilian and Tarantella,” whatever be its thought, it must express that concentration of life of which one view is rapture, the reverse despair.
Last Autumn we heard the compositions which may be claimed as American, in so far as they have this country for their birth-place, and owe their existence to the action of its scenes on the mind of the Artist. We esteem them grand and beautiful compositions. The “Solitude of the Prairie” was far the most satisfactory to us, as to others, or, if not so at the time, it certainly is in recollection.
Those who deny the honors of genius to the composer of these, must do so on the same ground that the critic would, those of the lyric poet to the writer of the most exquisite song, on the plea that he had never attempted the grand Pindaric ode. The fame of Ole Bull will not indeed rest on his compositions. These, probably, require his peculiar manner of playing, and leading the orchestra to give them due effect, and they will never be really heard except from himself. Had he never written any thing, the enchanting and animating power of his mind as a performer entitles him to rank, not only as a most accomplished violinist, and a person of great magnetic force, but as an original genius of a high order. But it is not just to undervalue his compositions, rich and beautiful poems which contain the experiences of one so delicately organized to apprehend the beautiful, capable of profound and wide reception of it, and of highly individual reproduction in forms flexible, graceful and transporting to other minds.
The “March in honor of Washington” we are now to hear. We hope it may be worthy his best genius! And let the audiences who wait on him in these last hours discard that cold, carping, or, at least, doubtful, temper in which men are too apt to regard beautiful beings till it is too late, till death or separation has hid them from our eyes, and a tardy justice can no more avail them. Ole Bull, like all true artists, is of an affectionate and delicate nature; he trusts himself, but needs a cordial reception to call forth his powers in perfection for the enjoyment of others. We hope that it will not be as it was last autumn, when the dull or stolid silence of the house checked the vibrations of his finest strains. May we welcome him, as we must part with him, in love and honor, for he is now ours especially as well as the world’s, and “Niagara and the Prairie,” no less than the Mountains of Norway may cry, All hail to our Ole Bull!*
“Ole Bull.” New-York Daily Tribune, 1 October 1845, p. 1.