Scherzo fantastique, op. 3, composed in 1908, is the second orchestral work by Igor Stravinsky (preceded by the Symphony in E-flat). It was inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck's 1901 essay "La Vie des Abeilles" (The Life of Bees), which Stravinsky and his wife Catherine Nossenko read in 1907. Ten years later, Léo Staats adapted it as a ballet for the Opéra Garnier, with the title Les Abeilles.
In July 1907, Stravinsky wrote to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov that he planned a "fantastic scherzo", to be called Bees. He started work on it in the same month and completed it on 30 March 1908. Rimsky-Korsakov saw the score and liked it, but he died in 1908 and never heard the work performed. Stravinsky dedicated the work to Alexander Siloti, who conducted the first performance on 6 February 1909 at the Siloti Concerts in St Petersburg. Stravinsky's Feu d'artifice (Fireworks) received its first performance at the same concert. Sergei Diaghilev was present and was impressed by this music, leading him to offer Stravinsky the first of his commissions for ballet music. The score was first published around 1909 by the Russian sheet music publisher P. Jurgenson.
Stravinsky conceived the Scherzo Fantastique as abstract music, but on 10 January 1917 it was performed as a ballet blanc at the Paris Opera House, with choreography by Léo Staats to a scenario based on Maeterlink's essay "La Vie des Abeilles" (the life of [the] bees). Stravinsky had not authorised this performance, and Maeterlinck objected to it.
Scherzo fantastique is scored for piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 3 clarinets in A, bass clarinet in A, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets in A, contralto trumpet in F, cymbals, celesta, 3 harps and strings. Stravinsky reduced the number of harps to 2 in 1930.
Like other early works of Stravinsky, the Scherzo fantastique follows the 19th-century Russian taste for exoticism. It uses octatonic and whole-tone scales, augmented triads and diminished seventh chords, and more chromaticism than in the composer's earlier works. The rhythm still uses fixed time signatures, and phrases are predominantly four bars long. It avoids rubato, using perpetuum mobile to maintain forward momentum.
This piece is inspired by an episode in the life of the bees. The first section gives an impression of life and activity in the hive. The central section, a slow movement, depicts sunrise and the nuptial flight of the queen bee. The love flight with her chosen mate, and his death. The third section, a reprise of the first, shows the peaceful activity of the hive continuing. Thus the whole piece becomes for us human beings the fantastic picture of an eternal cycle.
- Stravinsky's 1 December 1962 recording with the CBC Symphony Orchestra is included in Sony Classical's 22-CD set of the composer's works.
- Stephen Walsh, The Music of Stravinsky (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988): 8–11. ISBN 0-19-816375-4
- Eric Walter White, Stravinsky: The Composer and His Works, second edition (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979): 32, 179–180, 562–563. Accessed 3 October 2013.
- Scherzo fantastique, Op.3 (Stravinsky, Igor): Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- Works of Igor Stravinsky. 22-CD set. Sony Classical 88697103112. New York: Sony BMG Music Entertainment, 2007. Disc 1, "Ballets vol. 1" 88697103112-1.
- André Boucourechliev, Igor Stravinsky, Fayard, coll. Les indispensables de la musique, France, 1982. ISBN 2-213-02416-2.
- François-René Tranchefort, Guide de la musique symphonique, Fayard, coll. Les Indispensables de la musique, France, 1986. ISBN 2-213-01638-0.