Thursday, May 15, 2014

Flight of the Bumblebee and Musical Imagination; A Short Introduction by Payman Akhlaghi (2014)

Flight of the Bumblebee and Musical Imagination

A Short Introduction by Payman Akhlaghi (Draft 1)

(*) First published at on May 15, 2014, under "Flight of the Bumblebee and Musical Imagination".

As I listen to this this famous and successful musical painting, I can imagine the flight of a bee, fast approaching you, whizzing occasionally by your ears, you chasing it a bit with a fly swatter, but missing it, as it flies away and disappears. As Wikipedia explains, the original orchestral version [1,2] comes from an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov, "Tsar Sultan", and it closes an Act when a character is transformed by a spell into a bee.[3] Ever since its appearance, it's been arranged and performed as a solo piece by virtuoso instrumentalists. The best-known adaptation of it in the repertoire is the Rachmaninov piano version, which I share below in a classic recording by Horowitz. [4] However, thanks to the young pianist Yuja Wang, another exciting and seemingly impossible virtuoso adaptation of the work has resurfaced,[5] which was done by the mid-century Lisztian pianist, Cziffra. A kind user has provided a recording of the piece by Cziffra himself, alongside a slideshow of the score.[6] (The score maybe obtained elsewhere online to study, but I can't be sure if it's in the Public Domain.) Cziffra has never failed to amaze me, as I wrote about another of his performances in a recent Memo [7]; and this is no exception.

Besides its adaptation to many acoustic instruments, as a simple search in YouTube suggests, the piece has also stimulated some captivating electronic versions. Jean-Jacques Perry's version from the "Moog Indigo" album is full of creative moments that capture the 1970's epoch.[8] If memory serves me well, an (edited) version of this adaptation was used for the opening titles of the Persian-dubbed cartoon series, "Hutch the Honey Bee", which my generation grew up with as kids.

The composition's virtuoso potentials could also mislead many young and gifted performers to attempt it at faster and faster speeds, as a showcase of rapid dexterity, to the detriment of the music. As Horowitz and Cziffra demonstrate, virtuoso playing often includes speed, but it's about many other things besides speed. Whatever tempo you choose, it should first serve the music, the meaning of the composition, and the musical imagination. This is a principle that Wynton Marsalis well understands in his jaw dropping and clear adaptation of the Bumbleebee to trumpet.[9]

© 2014, Payman Akhlaghi. All rights reserved.

(*) Payman Akhlaghi is a composer, pianist and piano teacher based in Los Angeles. His repertoire covers Classical music, as well as Persian (Iranian) Music, Pop Music, and Film Music. For information on the lessons in the Greater Los Angeles area, including Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Encino, Brentwood, etc. please call: 310-208-2927. Thank you.