Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #36/50: Flight of the Bumblebee by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

I hope that this post finds you well wherever you happen to be reading it. In Cobourg, Ontario, where I am, the sun is shining, the grass is greening up, the birds are singing and the temperatures are starting to become warmer. I have opened all of the windows in our house. It is a wonderful time to take my keyboard in hand and write this post to all of you. While I can report that our gardens are coming alive with the first sprouts of tulips and daffodils, I have not seen the first appearance of our important friends, the bumblebees. A lot of what we do in our yard, with regard to planting, is so that there will be pollinating plants for the bees to visit, along with milkweed and other varieties of plants essential for the health and well-being of butterflies. My wife and I are by no means experts in creating insect-friendly garden spaces but we try our best. Our reward comes in the form of the flitting of Monarch butterfly wings and the buzzing of the bees all around our home throughout the warmer months of the year.

That’s not a bumblebee! It’s a Prince!

Bumblebees are one of the most important living creatures on our planet. Their role as pollinators is critical to the growth of many plants that we, as humans, need to survive. However, despite the important role that they play, bumblebees are also the clown princes of the insect world, too. The reason for this is the design of their bodies. Bumblebees have large, strong stocky bodies, yet their wings are relatively short. There have been many engineering experts who have studied the design of a bumblebee’s body and have declared that, mathematically-speaking, a bumblebee should not be able to fly at all. Those short wings do not possess enough length to compensate for the girth of their bodies, which means that they can’t use their wings in the same way that most flying creatures can to create lift. It has been discovered that bumblebees are able to fly because they use their wings in a motion that resembles a human swimmer doing the breaststroke. The bee’s wings go forward and backwards instead of up and down. But even with this swimming-like motion, a bumblebee can barely lift its own weight, and thus it must work furiously to merely buzz about gardens such as mine. This manic effort, combined with the aerodynamic challenges inherent in a bumblebee’s design, often cause a bumblebee’s flight pattern to be erratic. If you have ever watched a bee flying in your garden, you will be aware that they rarely go from flower to flower in a straight, economical line. Instead, they buzz about in stops and starts, looping about each flower as if they are attempting to land in a windstorm. It is no wonder that bumblebees bathe themselves in golden pollen once inside a flower. It must be such a feeling of relief to simply not be flying anymore and be still.

Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

The chaotic nature of how bumblebees fly is not only of interest to those who ponder food chains and the survival of our planet. It also served as inspiration for one of classical music’s most famous and well-known compositions, “The Flight of the Bumblebee”, by Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Rimsky-Korsakov was a very important and influential Russian composer who practiced his craft in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s. He wrote many symphonies but was best known for his operas, many of which drew from Russian folklore. Consequently, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is regarded as one of the major composers of nationalistic music (which is more commonly referred to as the Russian sound). In 1899, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote an opera called The Tale of Tsar Saltan. In this opera, the Tsar goes to sea just as he is about to become a father. While at sea, he gets word that his child has turned out to be a monster of some sort. Meanwhile, a coup has taken place at home that, among other things, has seen the Tsarina and her new baby boy sealed into a barrel and cast into the middle of the ocean. One thing leads to another, and the boy grows up to be a prince on a small island that he and his mother had washed up upon. One day, the Tsar sails by this island totally unaware that his wife and son now reside there. A magic swan appears and grants the boy the ability to change into the shape of a bumblebee. In this form, the boy is able to fly across the water and, in a modern day drone-like fashion, watch the man who he has come to suspect is his real father. As the opera unfolds, the boy changes into the form of a bumblebee several times. Each time that he does, the music of “The Flight of the Bumblebee” plays. Used in this way, “The Flight of the Bumblebee” is considered to be a piece of music called an Interlude. An interlude is a short piece of music that acts as a bridge between scenes. In this specific case, the interlude known as “The Flight of the Bumblebee” plays during the act of the boy flying to be near his father’s ship.

Each yellow dash equals one note. This image shows five seconds worth of notes. That’s a lot of notes in a very short time!

There have been several examples of incidental interludes actually becoming famous stand-alone pieces of music that end up outshining the original symphony or opera in which they were found. Edvard Grieg’s “Morning Mood” is one such example that you can read about here. In the case of “The Flight of the Bumblebee”, even though it is a short composition, it has gained fame due to the incredibly difficult skill level required to play it properly. Rimsky-Korsakov paid attention to detail. This can be seen in the fact that he constructed the notes of “The Flight of the Bumblebee” to be played at a rate that mimicked the speed with which an actual bumblebee has to use its wings in order to be able to fly. As we know, a real bumblebee has to move its wings incredibly fast, and even then, it still has difficulty moving about in an orderly fashion. Rimsky-Korsakov attempted to replicate this rapidity of movement by having the notes played as quickly as humanly possible. Not only that, but the way in which the notes appear in this piece requires the pianist to not only play with great speed but also with dexterity and extreme precision. For this reason, “The Flight of the Bumblebee” is generally considered to be one of the most difficult compositions for piano that has ever been written. It is often used as one of the examination pieces that students at conservatories of music are required to master before being granted certification. For proof of how difficult this short piece of music is to play, I ask you to click on the link at the end of this description and watch a video of this piece being played in a digitized fashion. The video shows the musical notes as coloured dashes that fall toward a piano keyboard at the bottom of the screen. As the notes fall, the pianist must hit the corresponding keys in time and in sequence in order for the video to continue. It resembles a video game on hyper drive. It seems to my untrained eyes that it is impossible to keep up the pace and accuracy necessary in order to play “The Flight of the Bumblebee” properly, but yet, many pianists manage to pull it off and real bumblebees can actually fly, so who am I to argue? You can watch this video by clicking here.

The Diner scene from Shine. Geoffrey Rush plays The Flight of the Bumblebee in a diner.

I will close by stating that “The Flight of the Bumblebee” has become a piece of music that has taken on a life of its own. It has been used in countless movies and animated television shows. In many of those cases, the music is played during chase scenes. There is one notable exception to this rule. In the 1996 movie Shine, actor Geoffrey Rush won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of pianist David Helfgott. In real life, Helfgott was a classically trained pianist who was raised in a very strict and demanding household in Australia. Eventually he moved to London and began to achieve a measure of fame for his playing skills on the piano. However, with fame came pressure that, in turn, came to manifest itself in the form of mental illness, eventual breakdown and hospitalization. In the movie scene that I will include in the links below, Geoffrey Rush (as Helfgott) stumbles into a restaurant that has a piano off to the side of the dining room. He is dressed haphazardly. As he enters the restaurant, his appearance attracts the attention of those dining inside. As the restaurant owners contemplate how they are going to handle this seemingly mentally unstable man, Rush sits down at the piano, drops his sheet music all over the floor, leaves it there and then launches into “The Flight of the Bumblebee”. For the brief moments that this composition lasts, Rush is able to demonstrate Helfgott’s prodigious talent and allow him to shine for all to see. It is a remarkable cinematic moment; one that went a long way toward helping Rush win the Best Actor Oscar.

The time for me to end this post is at hand. The time for me to head outside into the sunshine is at hand as well. I do not anticipate seeing a bumblebee in my yard on this day. It is still slightly too cool. But when I see them again, I will welcome their arrival. There will be no handshakes, hugs or high-fives between us. Instead, I will smile while keeping my distance. That bumblebee will be working hard just to stay aloft and say hello. I will leave it alone and allow it to stagger about, grateful that in doing so, it is saving the world. Bumblebees are truly one of Nature’s greatest miracles.

The link to the video for the composition “The Flight of the Bumblebee” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov can be found here. ***Honestly, the pianist is moving her hands so quickly they are nothing but a blur in this video. Unbelievable.

The link to the video for the “Flight of the Bumblebee” scene from the movie Shine can be found here.

The link to the official website of a museum dedicated to the life of composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov can be found here.

***NOTE: On a personal note, I wish to inform my faithful readers that this will be my last music post for the foreseeable future. My 92 year old mother has landed in hospital in Nova Scotia. At this time I do not wish to speculate on the outcome of her stay. But, needless to say, I will be heading down to be with her in the days to come. Hopefully, I won’t need to be away long but in cases such as this, one never knows. So, hug the ones you love. I will see you all again sometime down the road. Bye for now.

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