Jan 26

Flight of the Bumble-Bee


Chromatic Bees

You know the “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), don’t you?

So can you sing the first two bars for me? No, I thought not! “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” is instantly recognisable as the (possibly) most frenzied piece of music in the classical repertoire and is often chosen by instrumentalists of all flavours as a suitable “show off” piece to wow the audiences. I recently came across this Youtube video of the talented David Childs attacking it with his euphonium with stunning results:

But what else do you know about the “Flight of the Bumble-bee”?

Rimsky-Korsakov wrote it a simply an interlude between two acts of his opera “The Tale of Tsar Saltan”, composed in 1900. Actually, in the opera, the piece does have a vocal line (sung by the magic “Swan-Bird”), and the words are instructions for Prince Gvidon Saltanovich (the Tsar’s son) on how to change himself into an insect in order to fly away to his father, who thinks he is dead. It’s much more famous as an instrumental piece though, and has been used on the radio, TV and in film (Kill Bill vol.1) to envoke feelings of frantic and frenzy with great effect.

Although it sounds horribly complicated, the main theme of the music (known as a “leitmotif”) is deceptively simple. The theme is decorated with running chromatic semiquavers (sixteenth notes). If you can play a mean chromatic scale, you’ll probably be able to tackle the “Flight of the Bumble Bee” with some effect. Beware of tying your fingers in knots accidentally though! 


Fancy a go? There are several arrangements available from the MusicRoom.com, for example this one  for flute and piano.

If you’re not quite up to playing the “Flight of the Bumble-bee” just yet, here’s a CD including Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee from HMV,  or download it from Philharmonia Orchestra & Vladimir Ashkenazy - Rimsky-Korsakov: Sheherazade and Other Works - The Tale of Tsar Saltan: The Flight of the Bumble-Bee.

Rimsky-Korsakov was a Russian composer who led a remarkable life. His family were unsupportive of his chosen career but he managed to sneak in piano lessons when they weren’t looking, and ended up as Professor of Composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire. He bluffed his way through his first years in the post, keeping one page ahead of his students and once said he managed to keep up the charade because “”at first none of my pupils could imagine that I knew nothing”. Makes you think, doesn’t it! He learnt about composition on the job, and became rather good at it, as we can see today. Take a look at his “Principles of Orchestration” – an online, “interactive” version of the course is available at www.northernsounds.com

Other Interesting Rimsky-Korsakov Facts:

Rimsky-Korsakov suffered from a condition known as “synesthesia”, in which normally separate senses are cross-wired. He associated major keys with certain colours, as follows:
C – white
D – yellow
E – flat dark bluish-grey
E – sparkling sapphire
F – green
G – rich gold
A – rosy colored

The “Rimsky” part of his name comes from the fact that some of his ancestors made a pilgrimage to Rome (which is known as “Rim” in Russian).

Rimsky-Korsakov’s music was banned in Russia in 1905 during the Russian Revolution as a result of Rimsky-Korsakov supporting the students’ revolt. After an international outcry, his music was reinstated as legal.



  1. Anonymous

    My music master used to call Rimsky-Korsakov ‘rips his corsets off’ which wasn’t funny, even then.
    Child’s performance on the euphonium is inspired/ing.

  2. Anonymous

    I very much like Korsakov. Flight Of The Bumblbee is very cheerful, and that is what i like about him!

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