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Flight of the Bumble Bee
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

"The Flight of the Bumblebee" is a famous 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, right after the magic Swan-Bird gives Prince Gvidon Saltanovich (the Tsar's son) instructions on how to change 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 concert piece possible.

Although the "Flight" does not have a title in the score of the opera, its common English title translates like the Russian one. (Incidentally, this piece does not constitute one of the movements of the orchestral suite that the composer 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. (Readers of Aleksandr Pushkin's original poem upon which this opera is based will note that Gvidon is supposed to go on thre

e 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 conjunct 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.

Although the original orchestral version mercifully 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.

Adaptations and Arrangements

Among early adaptations, Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestral interlude was transcribed for piano by Sergei Rachmaninoff, with a few enhancements to the harmony. Violinist Yehudi Menuhin would often play the piece solo for Allied troops during World War II. The piece was used as the theme song for the radio show The Green Hornet. Perhaps the best-known arrangement of the piece is the virtuoso trumpet recording by Al Hirt. This version was used as the theme song of the 1960s television series version of The Green Hornet, starring Bruce Lee, and the Al Hirt version was used by Quentin Tarantino as an homage to the genre in his 2003 movie Kill Bill: Volume 1. In 1961, the recording group B Bumble and the Stingers had a top 40 hit with a version entitled "Bumble Boogie." "Flight of the Bumblebee" was also played on an electric guitar with accompanying orchestra, on the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's third album, Beethoven's Last Night. Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen and Dream Theater's John Petrucci have also been known to perform it live. The heavy metal band Extreme recorded a solo guitar interlude titled "Flight of the Wounded Bumblebee" on 1990's Pornograffiti, in which guitarist Nuno Bettencourt uses a delay pedal to double his apparent picking speed. Jennifer Batten also recorded a version, which is played without a pick, and is done entirely with tapping. Troy Stetina also includes a version transcribed for electric guitar in his instructional book Speed Mechanics For Lead Guitar, which is played by him at virtuoso speeds.

In addition to these instruments, "Flight of the Bumblebee" has been played on tuba (most famously by Canadian Brass tuba player Chuck Daellenbach) and even a near-impossible novelty version played on trombone on Spike Jones' first LP, Dinner Music For People Who Aren't Very Hungry. Christian Lindberg also played it on a trombone as a serious recording on his album, "The Virtuoso Trombone." Likewise novel is the a cappella vocal version by the New Swingle Singers. In the 2003 President's Star Charity of Singapore, "Flight of the Bumblebee" was performed on the erhu, a Chinese bowed string instrument. The singer Barry Manilow has also performed the "Flight" on a kazoo with an accompanying orchestra. Joey De Maio, of metal band Manowar, played his own version, called "Sting Of The Bumblebee", on piccolo bass. This piece has been played also by Benjamin Howie on the electric bass. A duet arrangement has been performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and singer Bobby McFerrin.

Bee, a remix of the piece by Banya, appears on the music video game Pump It Up. In addition, Croatian pianist Maksim Mrvica's "The Flight of the Bumble-Bee" was even played in a techno-classical-crossover style/genre and that piece was played twice with an interlude within in one track from his first music album "The Piano Player (2003)" which was also his first single co-produced by Jeff Wayne that helped catapulting him to fame (especially across Asian countries) for his impeccable piano performances.

recorded/sequenced on the Reuter opus #822 pipe organ, May 20, 2007

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