Ole Bull, a virtuoso violinist of the 19th century, got some well-deserved recognition at a Madison Symphony Orchestra concert last weekend. I’m not aware that Bull’s work is frequently played, though I heard a short violin solo he composed on Wisconsin Public Radio one evening last year.
This time I enjoyed a live performance. After playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, a crowd-pleaser of the first order, soloist Henning Kraggerud offered a sweet, elegiac piece written by Bull on the occasion of his wife’s death in 1862. Introducing the encore, Kraggerud remarked that Bull later found love in Madison where he met Sara Chapman Thorp.
Bull, like Kraggerud, was a Norwegian musician with an international career. Born in 1810, Bull was a celebrity before he was 30 and made his first tour of North America in 1843.
It was after an 1868 concert in Madison that the widowed Bull met Sara Thorp, daughter of Eau Claire lumber baron Joseph G. Thorp, who maintained a home in the capital where he pursued business interests and served two terms as a state senator.
Bull was 60 and Thorp was 20 when the couple married secretly in Norway in 1870. A formal wedding took place in Madison later that year and the Bulls took up residence in the mansion deeded by James Thorp to his daughter. The lakefront home became Bull’s base when in the United States and his wife traveled with him as he toured. Bull returned to Norway in 1880 in ill health and died soon thereafter.
The Bulls’ home still stands at 130 E. Gilman St. in Madison. After Ole Bull’s death, his widow sold the house and moved to Cambridge, Mass., where she published translations of Norwegian writer Jonas Lie and a memoir of Bull. Jeremiah Rusk bought the house after he was elected governor in 1882 and later sold it to the state. It was the governor’s residence until 1951 when the house was purchased by UW-Madison. Today, it continues a less lavish life as a residence for select students in the final stages of their post-graduate work.