Flight of the Bumblebee, arr. Rachmaninoff
November 4, 2018: Alessio Bax, piano
Rimsky-Korsakov originally composed his ultra-famous Flight of the Bumblebee as part of The Tale of Tsar Sultan, the opera he wrote in 1899 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great Russian author Alexander Pushkin. The story of this fairy-tale opera involves “three sisters, three wishes, three wonders, and three bee stings.” The celebrated Flight of the Bumblebee is heard between scenes, after the swan (one of the wonders) shows the hero how he can turn himself into a bee, so he can fly home and meet his father. The composer creates the picturesque frenzy of a bee in flight with incredibly fast notes moving in a narrow range for the violins, clarinet, and flute in turn.
Like many others who were so fascinated by this piece as to arrange it for almost every conceivable instrument, Rachmaninoff made a piano arrangement early in 1929. He eliminated its central episode, altered the beginning and end of the outer sections slightly, and tinkered a bit with a couple of harmonies, but he kept close to the Rimsky-Korsakov in other ways, especially in spirit, arriving at a dazzling encore piece that he even recorded on his last piano roll in April of 1929.
© Jane Vial Jaffe