Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Flight of the Bumblebee

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: 3 Minutes to 53.82 Seconds (depending on version and ambition)
Genre: Interlude
Time of Creation: 1899/1900
World Premiere: 21 October (jul.)/03 November (greg.) 1900 (Moscow)

Table of Contents

Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee in 5 Sentences

There is probably no other piece of classical music that has been so much made fun of as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee. Somewhere along the way, the trend started that one would have to play the Flight of the Bumblebee as fast as possible on as many instruments as possible with athletic ambition. This can be funny, but it is also a bit of a pity, because the Flight of the Bumblebee is actually a pretty good piece 😊 It is part of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “The Tale of Tsar Saltan”. Onomatopoeically, Rimsky-Korsakov composed the scene in which a prince, transformed into a bumblebee, silences two evil sisters by stinging them.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee

Highlight 1: Onomatopoeia

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee is best known, of course, for its successful onomatopoeia. Right at the beginning, we hear the bumblebee:

Highlight 2: Leitmotif 1/2

From the short description (above) you already know that the Flight of the Bumblebee comes from an opera and that the corresponding scene is about a prince. Well, Rimsky-Korsakov characterizes this prince (in the whole opera) with two leitmotifs. The first of these we hear right at the beginning – it is the plucked notes ABOVE the hum of the bumblebee:

Highlight 3: Leitmotif 2/2

The second leitmotif we hear a bit later – first plucked again in the strings, then in the flute:

Highlight 4: virtuoso runs

Higher and higher the music rises, then runs out with virtuosity:

3 Questions and Answers about Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee

Question 1: Why is Flight of the Bumblebee called like this?

The Flight of the Bumblebee is called like this because Rimsky-Korsakov imitates the sound of a flying bumblebee onomatopoeically. However, the fact that the Flight of the Bumblebee is also compositionally artistic (with the use of leitmotifs) is usually overlooked.

Question 2: What instruments play the Flight of the Bumblebee?

The Flight of the Bumblebee now exists as an arrangement for almost every instrument. Probably the most famous are the arrangements for violin, piano, and even tuba. The Flight of the Bumblebee is extremely popular as an encore.

Question 3: Which famous compositions were written by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov?

Besides the Flight of the Bumblebee, Rimsky-Korsakov’s most famous compositions include the orchestral works Sadko and Scheherazade.

2 Recommended Recordings of Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee

Recording 1: Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Neeme Järvi (Studio, 2006)

No, I’m not going to present here one of the countless recordings trying to set a new speed record with the Flight of the Bumblebee 😊 If you are interested in it: The internet is full of them. You can also play Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee in a cultivated way (that’s how it was originally intended), as the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under the baton of Neeme Järvi does, for example:

Recording 2: Berlin Symphony Orchestra, Hansjörg Schellenberger (live, 2021)

There is also a recording of the Flight of the Bumblebee by the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, appropriately made at the Berlin Zoo:

1 Quote about Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee

The bumblebee cannot actually fly aerodynamically. But it doesn't know that and just flies anyway!

The (long since disproved, but still amusing) "Bumblebee Paradox"

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