Enthusiasms: “Flight of the Bumblebee”


Bombus Praetorum - wikimedia commons

In 1900, Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov premiered his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan, of his Son the Renowned and Mighty Bogatyr Prince Gvidon Saltanovich and of the Beautiful Princess-Swan (often, and understandably, shortened to The Tale of Tsar Saltan). The plot is based on a fairytale by Pushkin in which a young prince, cruelly exiled from his home country by his evil aunts, rescues a magical swan and is granted a wish. His asks to be transformed into a bumblebee so he can go sting his enemies, and the instrumental interlude that follows became popularly known in subsequent years as “The Flight of the Bumblebee.” Though in the original opera it’s played by the whole orchestra, the intervening century as seen it reborn as a staple of the solo repertoire.

It’s most often played on the violin, but because of its status as the ultimate test of a performer’s chops, many other instruments have been brought up against it.

Here’s violinist David Garret establishing the current world’s record for speed:

My favorite recording for violin, however, is by Jascha Heifitz (still image with audio):

Here it is played on guitar by Jose Feliciano. The first time I saw this, I felt he’d cheated because he changes the original so much. It might be more appropriately titled, “Fantasia on Bumblebee.” Gradually, this version has grown on me, though, and if I ever try to play it, this is probably the approach I’ll take.

Finally, here’s Rafael Mendez on trumpet. This video shows him playing both Bumblebee and “Mexican Hat Dance.”

I appreciate that both Garret and Mendez mention how an instrumentalist inches toward this kind of repertoire, a little faster each time, striving perhaps for years to approach a perfect execution of the material. I saw an inspirational calendar a couple of months ago whose springtime encouragement (probably with agricultural themes in mind) was, “Some projects cannot be finished in a single day.”

Steven Arntson is a writer and composer who performs as a concertina soloist and with the quartet The Toy Boats. Upcoming appearances are posted on his facebook page, and recordings, scores, and articles reside at his website.

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