Bull Curtis Papers, 1830-1910

Administrative Information

Biographical Sketch


Scope and Content Note

Series Description and Folder Listing

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6 file boxes
Processor: Zinaida Tsemel
2.5 linear feet
Date: November 2002
Updated: November 2008

Acquisition: The Bull Curtis Papers were donated between 1986-1988 to the Cambridge Historical Society by Sylvea Bull Curtis and Nelson G. Curtis.

Access: There are no restrictions to items in this collection.

Permission to Publish: Requests for permission to publish from the collection should be made to the Executive Director.

Copyright: The Cambridge Historical Society does not hold copyright on the materials in the collection.

Biographical Sketch

Ole Bull, the internationally renowned Norwegian violinist, was born in 1810 in Bergen into quite a musical family. He started playing the violin at the age of five, and by the time he was nine he was already playing first violin in an orchestra: the statutes of the Bergen Harmonic society had to be altered to admit so young a musician. Ole Bull’s father, however, saw little security and profit in this occupation and wished his son to go to a university and settle for the church as his career. Fortunately for him, the young man failed at the entrance exams in the University of Christiania (Oslo), but gained an instant appointment as the conductor of the capital’s Musical Lyceum and the Theatre Orchestra (at the age of 18). Interestingly enough, Bull himself remained critical of his playing and, being largely self-taught, he wished to go to the cultural centers of Europe to learn from imminent musicians and to establish his own reputation.

His first three years abroad were rather destitute, due partly to his lack of business and people acumen, which often made him rely on or be a victim of untrustworthy people – a problem he suffered from throughout his life. However, he was also sometimes helped by total strangers, including a Frenchwoman Mme. Villeminot, whose granddaughter Felicie he later married. In 1834 he was finally able to secure some formal musical training in Italy, and combining Italian academic expertise with the Norwegian folk music traditions and his own soulful interpretation, Ole Bull had a triumphant concert in Bologna half a year later.

From then on, Bull spent most of his time touring Europe and America with concerts. His performances aroused great enthusiasm among the audience and often he played to overcrowded houses. As one of his listeners wrote of the power of his music, “I felt raised above all care, all pain, all fear, and every taint of vulgarity was washed out of the world!” On several occasions delegations arrived from a city he had just left on his tour asking him to return. Delighted monarchs showered him with jewels and honorary decorations.

Having a flair for dramatics, he himself did not shy publicity and agreed to play his violin from the top of Cheop’s pyramid on his 66th birthday, at the suggestion of the king of Norway. Ole Bull’s character, both flamboyant and spiritual, attracted almost as much attention as his music, and he was repeatedly used by writers as a model for their fictional personages, most notably by George Sand as Abel in Malgretout, as Musician in Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn, and Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Thackerey also proclaimed him “quite a figure for a book.” Mark Twain wrote that “if Ole Bull had been born without arms, what a rank he would have taken among the poets – because it is in him, and if he couldn’t violin it out, he would talk it out, since of course, it would have to come out.” Norwegian dramatist Bjornson said that Bull’s “personality was so powerful that when he entered a room he obliterated all others.”

Besides meetings with illustrious people, his constant traveling also provided Ole Bull with all sorts of adventures. To cite just a few examples: after a concert in New Orleans one of the spectators visited him and asked to sell him his violin bow which was a present from the Duke of Devonshire and had a diamond on it. When Ole Bull refused the man attacked him with a knife. Luckily, the musician managed to overcome his visitor, and the latter even gave him his knife as a present in admiration of his dexterity. On another occasion, Ole Bull’s violin was lost while traveling through Panama. He stayed behind his company to look for it, yet “while waiting for the next steamer he fell victim to the yellow fever, and, a riot of disturbance breaking out in the place, he was fully neglected.” One night during the worst of his illness, he was alone, and was obliged to creep off the bed upon the floor to escape the stray bullets which crushed through the windows from the affray outside.” If one adds to these various incidents caused by swindlers which put him several times on the brink of bankruptcy and/or arrest, it appears obvious that Ole Bull’s life was certainly never boring.

His historical importance was twofold. On one handt having become the first internationally recognized Norwegian, he did a lot to further the cultural development of his country and to popularize it abroad. He was a major influence upon and a patron of such Norwegian luminaries as Henrik Ibsen, Bjornson, and Edvard Grieg. In 1849 Bull founded the National Norwegian Theatre in Bergen and made the 23-year-old Ibsen its first director on the condition that he write a play a year. Five years later he installed Bjornson in this position. He also persuaded Grieg’s parents to send him to Leipzig Conservatory upon hearing him play.

As a violinist, he was considered the greatest virtuoso of his time, and in his ability to play four parts at once, in a class by himself. He was also very interested in the construction of violins, and reconstructed many of his own to give them a low and flatter bridge and a longer and heavier, specially shaped bow. This, no doubt, helped him to achieve his polyphonic feats, but it is also true that he remained the only musician who could do it, with any instrument. Ole Bull also composed music, but most of it remained unpublished, partly because of its virtuoso difficulty and partly due to his predilection for improvisation. Ole Bull lived to the age of seventy, continuing to perform with undiminished success until his death.

Sara Bull was born Sara Chapman Thorpe in 1850 in upstate New York. Her parents moved to Madison, Wisconsin where her father Joseph Thorpe became successful in the lumber business and served as a state senator. Her mother, Amelia, was apparently a formidable individual who sought and played a prominent role in Madison society. By all accounts Sara was raised in a conventional manner under the watchful care of her mother. In 1868, she was introduced to Ole Bull (by then a widower) when he had a concert in Madison. Bull returned to Madison in 1870 and was a guest at the Thorpes’ house. Despite strong objections of her father, but not of her socially ambitious mother, Ole Bull began courting Sara. She was 20, he 60. In the summer of that year Mrs. Thorpe took her daughter on a European tour and, unknown to her husband, she responded to Ole Bull’s invitation to visit him in Norway. A secret wedding took place there in June 1870, followed by a splendid wedding in Madison in the fall. A daughter, Olea, was born in March 1871.

For the next ten years Sara was the wife of a famous touring violinist, sometimes traveling with him on his U.S. and European concert tours and occasionally serving as his piano accompanist. In 1879 Sara, her daughter, and her mother took up residence in Cambridge, Massachusetts renting “Elmwood” from James Russell Lowell. In 1880, Ole Bull, at the age of 70, died with Sara at his side at his house Lysoen near Bergen.

Following her husband’s death, Sara wrote Ole Bull: A Memoir, published in 1883, and helped carry out his wish to have a monument to Leif Ericsson erected in Boston. She continued living in Cambridge first in “Elmwood” and then beginning from 1888 at the new house her father had built at 168 Brattle Street. It was here that all her family gathered including her brother Joseph Thorpe Jr. who had recently got married to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s daughter, Annie Allegra. Sara Bull also became close friends with such luminaries as Celia Thaxter, Julia Ward Howe, and Sarah Orne Jewett and became active in the Boston cultural and social scene. Perhaps her most notable effort was initiating and sponsoring the Cambridge Conferences. With the help of an executive director these seminars brought together leading intellectual and cultural leaders for a series of lectures on philosophical, social and religious topics in 1897-1899. In the later years Mrs. Bull became increasingly attracted to Eastern religions, financially supported their efforts and eventually joined an Indian sect. She died January 1911.

For Ole Bull’s biography:
Grove Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians. Macmillan; 2001-02 on-line edition. (see bibliography section in the description)

Sara C. Bull. Ole Bull: A Memoir. New York: Da Capo Press, 1981.

Encyclopedia Britannica. 2002 on-line edition. (see bibliography section in the description)

Sara Bull’s biography was taken largely unchanged from Ted Hansen’s notes written on January 24, 2001.

Scope and Content Note

Series I, General Letters, 1830-1910, consists of the letters received by Ole and Sarah Bull. The bulk of these consists of letters written to Sara Bull spanning the years 1880-1910 and received during her time in Cambridge, Massachusetts. However, there are also quite a few letters written to Ole or Sara Bull, or to some third party concerning them, dating from as early as 1830s.

Series II, Cambridge Conferences, 1895-1904 consists of letters, articles, etc. related to the Cambridge Conferences, a series of lectures devoted to philosophical, religious, and social topics.

Series III, Photographs and Framed Material, consists of photographs, drawings, and framed poems. Most photographs are of friends and acquaintances of Sara Bull, including: Celia Thaxter, Julia Marlowe, Louis Agassiz, Rasmus B. Anderson, Edward Everett Hale, and Lewis Janes, director of the Cambridge Conferences. One photograph is a group photograph that includes Sara Bull and Olea Bull. The final photograph is a hand-colored photograph of the Norwegian room of Sara Bull’s house at 168 Brattle Street in Cambridge. Also included in this series are two framed, handwritten, presentation poems, one a gift to Sarah Bull by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the other a gift to Ole Bull from Joseph Miller.

A number of research notes, contemporary articles, and photocopies of period articles are also included in the bibliography section, which is not part of the collection, but is listed in the container list.

Bull Curtis Papers, 1830-1910

Series I. General Letters

1|1a|French letters

1|1b|Typescripts of French letters and translations

6|1|Photocopies of French letters

1|2|Undated Letters, A-C

1|3|Undated Letters, D-F

1|4|Undated Letters, G-H

1|5|Undated Letters, J-L

1|6|Undated Letters, M-R

1|7|Undated Letters, S-T

1|8|Undated Letters, U-W

1|9|Letters, 1830s

1|10|Letters, 1840s

1|11|Letters, 1850s

1|12|Letters, 1860s

1|13|Letters, 1870-1873

1|14|Letters, 1874-1875

1|15|Letters, 1876

1|16|Letters, 1877-1879

1|17|Letters, January-June 1880

1|18|Letters, July-October 1880

1|19|Letters, November-December 1880

2|1|Letters, January-April 1881

2|2|Letters, May-December 1881

2|3|Letters, January-March 1882

2|4|Letters, April-June 1882

2|5|Letters, July-December 1882

2|6|Letters, January-June 1883

2|7|Letters, July-September 1883

2|8|Letters, October-December 1883

2|9|Letters, January-February 1884

2|10|Letters, March-April 1884

2|11|Letters, May-June 1884

2|12|Letters, July-December 1884

3|1|Letters, January-March 1885

3|2|Letters, April-May 1885

3|3|Letters, June-August 1885

3|4|Letters, September-December 1885

3|5|Letters, January-June 1886

3|6|Letters, July-December 1886

3|7|Letters, January-June 1887

3|8|Letters, July-December 1887

3|9|Letters, 1888

3|10|Letters, 1889

3|11|Letters, 1890

3|12|Letters, 1891

3|13|Letters, 1892

3|14|Letters, 1893

4|1|Letters, January-June 1894

4|2|Letters, July-December 1894

4|3|Letters, 1895

4|4|Letters, 1896

4|5|Letters, 1897

4|6|Letters, 1898

4|7|Letters, 1899

4|8|Letters, 1900

4|9|Letters, January-June 1901

4|10|Letters, July-December 1901

4|11|Letters, 1902

4|12|Letters, 1903

4|13|Letters, 1904

4|14|Letters, 1905

4|15|Letters, 1906

4|16|Letters, 1907

4|17|Letters, 1908

4|18|Letters, 1909

4|19|Letters, 1910

Series II: Articles and Letters Concerning the Cambridge Conferences

5|1|Articles, 1898-1899 (3rd season)

5|2|Articles, 1899-1900 (4th season)

5|3|Undated Letters arranged in alphabetical order by author (A-Z)

5|4|Letters, 1895

5|5|Letters, January-June 1896

5|6|Letters, July-September 1896

5|7|Letters, October-December 1896

5|8|Letters, 1897

5|9|Letters, 1898

5|10|Letters, 1899

5|11|Letters, 1900-1904

5|12|Religious newspapers from India 1890s-1901

Series III: Photographs, drawing, and framed poems

6|2|3.01 BC – Photograph (6×8.5″) depicting a gentleman and five ladies including Sara Bull and her daughter Olea, a negative of this photograph, and a colored photocopy

6|2|3.02 BC – Photograph (4×5.5″) of Celia Thaxter

6|2|3.03 BC – Photograph (4×6″) of Julia Marlowe as Mistress Constance inscribed on the back “to my dear Olea, with my love. Julia Marlowe. May 1893.”

6|2|3.04 BC – Photograph (5.5×4″) of Louis Agassiz

6|2|3.05 BC – Photograph (5.5×4″) of Cyrus A. Bartol

6|2|3.06 BC – Photograph (4×6″) of Rasmus B. Anderson and his family

6|2|3.07 BC – Photograph (7.5×4″) of Edward Everett Hale

6||3.08 BC – Framed photograph (4×5) of Lewis Janes inscribed “to my friend and helper in the work of the Cambridge Conferences, Mrs. Ole Bull, with the sincere regard of Lewis Janes. Cambridge. April 30, 1897.” Also contains a handwritten paragraph beginning “Creeds are many: Truth is one.” and a poem by James H. West beginning with “O steadfast soul! In whatever star … ” dated Sept. 8, 1901.

6||Framed drawing of Ole Bull in his youth with an inscription: “Miss Anna Lynch with the compliments of H. O. Darley.”

6||Framed handwritten poem beginning with “Trust in Future howe’er pleasant!” signed “Henry W. Longfellow. Jan. 15, 1877. With Mr. Longfellow’s compliments.”

6||Framed handwritten poem “To Ole Bull” signed “Joseph Miller, Rome, May 1874.”

6||3.09 BC – Colored photograph (10×8″) of the Norwegian room in Sara Bull’s house and a colored photocopy.


5 |13| Photocopies of contemporary articles and current Internet publications on Sara Bull, her close associates, and Cambridge Conferences.

5 |14| Ted Hansen’s detailed biographical research notes and short articles on Sara Bull’s biography and on Cambridge Conferences.

5|| Book. Tantine: The Life of Josephine MacLeod, Friend of Swami Vivekananda by Pravrajika Prabuddhaprana, published in Calcutta by Sri Sarada Math in 1990. It contains numerous references to Sara Bull.