“Flight of the Bumble Bee” from The Tale of Tsar Saltan

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          Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s career stood in the very center of Russian musical life of the second half of the nineteenth century.  His first career was in the Russian navy, but he soon garnered success in music.  Known primarily for his fifteen operas, he was instrumental in the rising importance of that genre in Russia.  In addition to his fame and influence as a composer, he was also head of the conservatory in St. Petersburg--his statue dominates the little park directly across the street from the conservatory and the famed Mariinsky Theatre.   In the West, of course, we know him primarily for his Russian Easter Festival overture, the suite extracted from Le coq d’or, and the symphonic suite, Scheherazade.  Nevertheless, his major accomplishment was his operas.  His ability as an orchestrator and teacher of orchestration is one of his many legacies--Igor Stravinsky was one of his students.  In fact, much of the marvelous musical atmosphere that audiences adore in Stravinsky’s early ballets, the Rite of Spring, Firebird, and Petrouchka, lead directly back to Rimsky-Korsakov and the orchestral brilliance of his operas.  And it is of no small interest that there are sections in Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s Daphnis et Cloé that seem lifted right out of Scheherazade. A fascination with the exotic, with non-Western subject matter, was a prime characteristic of Romanticism, and Russian music of the late nineteenth century is exemplary of this predilection.

          Nothing better illustrates the point than the three “fairy tale” operas of Rimsky-Korsakov.  These magic operas, with phantasmagorical libretti, harmonic innovations, and deliberately veiled and atmospheric emotional content, were a perfect vehicle for his mastery of colorful and exotic orchestra sounds.  The first of these, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, was given its première in Moscow in 1900, and is the source of the evergreen favorite, the “Flight of the Bumble Bee.”  A synopsis of the tale takes almost longer than a performance of the “Bumble Bee”:  Based on a poem by Pushkin, the story is, of course, complicated and somewhat contrived, as fairy tales often are.   In essence, it involves two jealous older sisters and a young sister who marries the Tsar.  Upon the birth of the heir, the older ones send an outrageous message to the Tsar—off in war, as is usual—that rather than a son, his wife has borne not a son, a daughter, nor even a mouse or a frog, but an unspeakable monster.  The enraged Tsar orders the mother and offspring to be sealed in a barrel and thrown into the sea.  Landing on an island, and out of the barrel, the son grows into a prince, and laments his separation from his father.  And now the truly bizarre part:  A grateful, magical swan, whom he has saved from death, turns the young prince into a bumble bee in order for him to fly over the sea—in a really good disguise!—to visit his father, the Tsar.   And so, this little interlude accompanies the flight of the prince.   And it’s not just a good way to travel—he later extracts his vengeance by stinging and blinding the bad women behind his difficulties.   Later, of course, in typical magic opera fashion, he is transformed back into a human being by the swan, who in turn becomes a beautiful princess, they marry, the Tsar is happy, the bad women forgiven, and all’s well.  Now you know.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan