Bergen impresses visitors immediately on arrival as a city dedicated to public and performance art. Creativity in Bergen is worldly, informed by access to international influences at the docks, and introspective, impressed by Nordic tradition and folkways. Musicians of the fjords played fiddles, not violins. Fiddles produce a unique tone, clearly regional music of Norway. Artists of Bergen have for centuries reached out to encourage the next generation as Norwegian artists, including those who draw inspiration from the fjords.
Writer Ludvig Holberg, born in 1684, traveled to Europe and wrote in Danish, looked to his roots for historic material. In turn, his work preserved the history of Bergen and gave it notoriety. Holberg wrote a novel in tribute to Bergen’s ill-fated poet Cille Gad and Bergen composer Edvard Grieg wrote the Holberg Suite in honor of Norway’s prolific author. Violinist Ole Bull encouraged young Grieg to pursue a career in music. Playwright and theater director, Henrik Ibsen was brought to Bergen by his Norwegian contemporaries to write in Norwegian and produce plays.
Ole Bull achieved international fame in the late nineteenth century playing classical violin, modified to incorporate the sound of fiddles of the fjords of Norway. Famous within Norway were fiddles of Hardanger, made of a combination of wood, thinly planed and finished with a flat bridge. Hardanger fiddles have a shadow row of strings, which, when played by a skilled fiddler, sound like an accordion. It takes a large strong hand to finger the strings of a Hardanger fiddle across the flat bridge and work the long bow. Ole Bull was entranced by the violin and its sound.
The fine instruments of mountain ash and pine in the hands of Bergen violinist Ole Bull were brought to the world stage. Bull was born in Bergen in 1810. He founded its first national theater in 1850, a presumption of nationalism, since Oslo was the capital of Norway, under Danish then Swedish rule. Among the first theater managers was Henrik Ibsen.
When he was sixty-six, at the pinnacle of his career, Bull played his violin while seated on top of the Cheops Pyramid in Egypt. For a while Bull contemplated living in the United States, until he was swindled on a land deal in Pennsylvania. He returned to Norway, where he died in 1880. He did not live to see Norway become an independent nation in 1905.
Bull insisted that Edvard Hagerup Grieg attend music school in Leipzig in 1858. Grieg, also born in Bergen, was only fifteen, when Bull recognized his talent. Grieg was a prolific composer, whose body of music is identified as the national music of Norway. Returning the favor shown to him by Bull, Grieg founded a society to promote the music of young composers. Often called the Chopin of the north, Grieg spent his final days in Bergen, where he died in 1907.
The Bergen music hall is named for Grieg. The main arts square of Bergen, which runs from the group of museums under the banner of KODE and the National Theatre, with the most unusual statue of Ibsen in the front lawn, is named for Bull. A statue of a young, life-size Bull plays his violin at the top of a pile of stones in a fountain, where young children come to play.
Outside of Bergen, across a small lake, on a hill, sits the fairytale home of Bull, now a museum to his life. Bull remarried at sixty, a young woman who carried his memory into a museum and supportive foundation. A visit to Bull’s home, Lysøen, is an opportunity to drive through the Norwegian outskirts of Bergen, take the Valestrandfossen ferry across the lake, and linger in a musical moment in nineteenth century Norway.
The fame of artists of Bergen has been inspiring tourism for centuries.
Read all stories of Norway in Cruise through History, Itinerary XII, forthcoming.