Flight of the Bumblebee
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Flight of the Bumblebee performed by the US Army Band
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"Flight of the Bumblebee" is an orchestral interlude written by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan, composed in 1899–1900. The piece closes Act III, Tableau 1, during which the magic Swan-Bird changes Prince Gvidon Saltanovich (the Tsar's son) into an insect so that he can fly away to visit his father (who does not know that he is alive). Although in the opera the Swan-Bird sings during the first part of the "Flight", her vocal line is melodically uninvolved and easily omitted; this feature, combined with the fact that the number decisively closes the scene, made easy extraction as an orchestral concerto piece possible.
Here is the text of the scene where the Swan-Bird sings during this music:
|(Гвидон спускается с берега в море. Из моря вылетает шмель, кружась около Лебедь-Птицы.)
|(Gvidon goes down from the shore into the sea. Out from the sea flies a bumblebee, whirling around the Swan-Bird.)
Although the "Flight" does not have a title in the score of the opera, its common English title translates like the Russian one (Полёт шмеля = Polyot shmelya). Incidentally, this piece does NOT constitute one of the movements of the orchestral suite that Rimsky-Korsakov derived from the opera for concerts.
Those familiar with the opera Tsar Saltan may recognize two leitmotifs used in the Flight, both of which are associated with Prince Gvidon from earlier in the opera. These are illustrated here in musical notation:
The music of this number recurs in modified form during the ensuing tableau (Act III, Tableau 2), at the points when the Bumblebee appears during the scene: it stings the two evil sisters on the brow, blinds Babarikha (the instigator of the plot to trick Saltan at the beginning into sending his wife away), and in general causes havoc at the end of the tableau. The readers of Aleksandr Pushkin's original poem, upon which this opera is based, will note that Gvidon is supposed to go on three separate trips to Saltan's kingdom, each of which requires a transformation into a different insect.
"Flight of the Bumblebee" is recognizable for its frantic pace when played up to tempo, with nearly uninterrupted runs of chromatic sixteenth notes. It is not so much the pitch or range of the notes that are played that challenges the musician, but simply the musician's ability to move to them quickly enough. Because of this and its complexity, it requires a great deal of skill to perform.
In the "Tsar Saltan" suite, the short version is commonly played, taking less than two minutes. In the Opera version, the three-minute fifty-five-second version is performed.
Although the original orchestral version assigns portions of the sixteenth-note runs to various instruments in tandem, in the century since its composition the piece has become a standard showcase for solo instrumental virtuosity, whether on the original violin or on practically any other melodic instrument. Sergei Rachmaninov's transcription for piano features in the film Shine and is interpreted by David Helfgott.
In popular culture
- "Flight of the Bumblebee" was featured, along with other compositions by Rimsky-Korsakov, in the fictional 1947 biopic Song of Scheherazade.
- The radio program The Green Hornet used "Flight of the Bumblebee" as its theme music, blended with a hornet buzz created on a theremin. The music became so strongly identified with the show and the character that it was retained as the theme for the later TV series. This version was orchestrated by Billy May and conducted by Lionel Newman, with trumpet solo by Al Hirt, in a jazz style nicknamed "Green Bee". This particular version was later featured in the 2003 film Kill Bill.
- The music inspired Walt Disney to have a bumblebee featured in a segment of Fantasia that would sound as if it was flying in all parts of the theatre. It was an experiment that ended up on the cutting room floor but anticipated the eventual invention of surround sound. However, in his film Melody Time, Disney included an animated segment using Freddy Martin's "Bumble Boogie", a jazz arrangement of the piece.
- A segment of the song was used in the Michael Jackson song, "Breaking News".
- The Canadian heavy metal band Anvil covered this song on their 1987 album Strength of Steel under the name of "Flight of the Bumble Beast".
- The American heavy metal band Manowar covered this song on a bass guitar on their 1988 album Kings of Metal under the name of "Sting of the Bumblebee".