March 2017: Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908) left a legacy of great music and artistic influence for future generations through his work as a conservative, yet renegade composer-turned-professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in Russia. Originally a naval officer, Rimsky-Korsakov began his musical career as a member of “The Mighty Handful” or “The Five”, a group of amateur musicians whose wish was to create a body of music uniquely Russian, without the influence of European, and especially North German, musical conventions. The Five celebrated their lack of formal training believing their raw, untrained musicianship the best starting point for creating a sound reflective of their own great country, free from constraints of European influence.
And this they did. Rimsky-Korsakov especially loved opera, writing no less than 15 full-scale operas, many permeated with Russian history and literary folklore. The composer, however, was not to remain an amateur nationalist forever. Imagine the surprise of Rimsky-Korsakov’s colleagues in The Five when he took a teaching position in Russia’s St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music, which specifically taught Western European compositional technic! When offered the job, with good pay, Rimsky-Korsakov could not say no. And the world is glad, for, while at the conservatory, the composer’s own compositional skills grew immensely. During his time at the conservatory, Korsakov came to support musical training for better musicianship and composing. While there, he wrote a plethora of master works including three of his most famous pieces, Scheherazade, Russian Easter Festival Overture, and Capriccio Española. Throughout his life as a teacher, Korsakov taught many students, a large number of them becoming notable musicians or master composers including Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, and Ottorino Respighi. So influential in his time at the Conservatory, his name was added to the title of the school itself: The N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov St. Petersburg State Conservatory.
Listening as an Event
The Flight of the Bumblebee, one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s very well known pieces, comes from his opera, The Tale of Tsar Sultan. The piece literally flies and buzzes imitating an insect on a journey, the strings, playing in their lower registers, creating a literal ‘buzzing’ sonority. From the very first note, the piece is off to the races placing each player on guard! The piece never slows down, but simply seems to increase in tempo, vitality, energy, and tension through its 3 minutes, 8 seconds! The piece, originally composed for orchestra, has been arranged for countless other instruments, both solo and ensemble, and few players can resist the challenge to play the piece as absolutely fast as possible.
Before you listen, ready your finger to click “play” on the link and close your eyes. Imagine a field of wild flowers dancing lazily on a slow, summer day. It is quiet, still. Now, picture the scene fading into animation. Push play! Suddenly, a witty, clever, and mischievous bumblebee appears and begins its helter-skelter journey through the forest of flowers. Imagine little dots showing its flight, like on an animated map. The dots weave in and out, over and through; never stopping, pausing, or ending.
Next, listen to the link again. This time listen without watching. Experience the change in color or timbre as the melody jumps from instrument to instrument. Does the flute give a different mood than the clarinet? Than the buzzing strings? How does the shifting of the instruments affect your imagery of the scene?
Round Three! This is just worth seeing!! A pipe organ is the biggest instrument on earth. In the 1600’s, the instrument offered the penultimate entertainment. In a world in which electronics, amplifiers, large screen movie theatres, and the blitz of multi-media sensory overload of contemporary society did not exist, the organ brought down the house. Usually housed in grand churches and cathedrals, the organ was not only an aural reminder of the ‘humble’ state of human kind, but a visual! The instrument, placed in the back of the church for the full viewing of the parishioners, was a technological wonder of its time! The sound of the bigger pipe organs is so loud that it can travel for miles beyond the church walls. The organ has various ‘stops’ that control which set of pipes sound forth. Each set has a particular tone quality and character. Thus, the organ can imitate an orchestra not only in volume, but in color and timbre changes as well, sometimes sounding like trumpets or flutes, while other times rumbling like tubas and basses. An organ can have multiple keyboards or ‘consoles’, and even has one for the feet! This arrangement of Flight of the Bumblebee is arranged for pipe organ and is performed by Dr. Carol Williams.
Bonus: There are many arrangements of this piece. Check out some other videos and find one you like! Send the link to your teacher!
Greenberg, R. (2006). How to listen to and understand great music, 3rd edition lectures 1-24 transcript book. Chantilly, Virginia: The Great Courses.
Plantinga, L. (1984). Romantic music a history of musical style in nineteenth-century Europe. New York, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Serov, V. (1898). Portrait of nikolai rimsky-korsakov [Digital image]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikolai_Rimsky-Korsakov