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Classical Bzzzz-ness

Taking care of bzzzzness
Kenny Goose
Taking care of bzzzzness

There aren’t thousands of classical music pieces about bugs and insects and creepy crawlies, but I did find enough to say they’ve “wormed their way” into some fascinating works.

Maybe the most famous in the “bug/insects” category, is “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” from Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, The Tale of Tsar Saltan. At the end of Act III, Tableau 1, the magic Swan turns Prince Gvidon into a bee so he can fly to visit his father, the Tsar, to let him know he is alive. The incidental music has been transcribed for flute, piano, cornet, violin – you name it – but I found this video with the London Cello Orchestra, something different and absolutely delightful:

“The Flight of the Bumblebee” has been used in everything from a 1925 Charlie Chaplin movie to a 1961 piano-pop version played by B. Bumble and the Stingers (which made it to No. 21 on the Billboard “Hot 100” chart) to a Guinness World Record for “fastest guitarist and violinist” versions!

But Rimsky-Korsakov wasn’t the only composer interested in bees. A German violinist and composer who went by the French name, François Schubert, (not to be confused with Franz Schubert), also honored “The Bee” in his 12 Bagatelles for Violin and Piano, Op. 13, published in 1860. Here’s violinist Leonidas Kavakos with pianist Peter Nagy.

Just as an aside, in 1937, comedian Jack Benny, who was actually an accomplished violinist but pretended to be an inept one, tries to practice “The Bee” in his half-hour radio show, and it becomes the basis for, what I think was one of the funnier skits he ever did. His co-star, Mary Livingston says, “Oh Jack, isn’t it wonderful?"
“What?” he asks.
“On account of your violin they have renamed a town in Florida after you!”
“Oh yeah? What’s it called now?”
“Off-Key West!”

A couple of other flying insects are depicted in Edvard Grieg’s 25 Norwegian Folk Songs and Dances, Op. 17. The 17th is “Kleggen og Fluga,” (The Horsefly and the Fly.) Einar Steen-Nokleberg plays it here:

15th century composer Josquin Des Prez has the earliest example I could find of music acknowledging insects. “El Grillo” (The Cricket) is a piece for four voice-parts written in the 1490s. It’s a humorous song that compares the singing of crickets to songbirds, and concludes that maybe crickets are the better singers because they’ll sing no matter what kind of weather.

Nothing proven definitively yet, but some musicologists have theorized that Josquin wrote this piece inspired by an Italian court singer by the name of Carlo Grillo!

Georg Philip Telemann was also inspired by the insect. His Concerto in G, TWV 50, is nicknamed the “Grillen (Cricket) Symphony. As the short symphony begins, you can hear that almost every instrument in the orchestra “chirps!” Here’s Simon Standage conducting Collegium Musicum 90:

Hungarian composer Béla Bartók put a little humor in his “From the Diary of a Fly,” from Mikrokosmos. It tells the experience of a fly caught in, and trying to escape from, a spider’s web. Bartók even makes a notation at measure 49: “Ouch. A Cobweb!” Here is Jeno Jando:

The piece was included in the last of the six volumes of Mikrokosmos, which he intended as a basic piano teaching course. The piece sounds fairly straightforward, even easy, but takes a well-practiced hand to play it.

In 2000, Roger Cichy composed a piece for band called Bugs, which he said was inspired by the exhibits he saw at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Bugs describes several: “Dragonfly,” “Praying Mantis,” “Black Widow Spider,” “Tiger Swallow Tail,” and finally, “Army Ants,” which he envisioned crawling all over each other. Here’s the University of North Texas Symphonic Band, conducted by Dennis Fisher, playing the final movement, “Army Ants.”

Cichy’s own website says it was difficult for him to narrow down the list to just these six. “The particular bugs represented in this suite were chosen partly because of the contrasting styles of music that would be composed for each.”

And here’s one more from a contemporary composer. In 2007 Arlene Sierra wrote Birds and Insects, Book 1, for solo piano. Here is “Cicada Sketch” played by Vassily Primikov:

Most of the other movements are named for birds, but there is one called “Scarab” that honors the beetle portrayed in ancient Egyptian theology.

You may have noticed that missing from this collection are any pieces having to do with butterflies. Fear not, my fellow butterfly lovers. A butterfly blog post is coming! Meanwhile, whether they bite, flutter, annoy, or delight, maybe the best bugs and insects to cross our paths are the ones we can visit with any time through music.

CODA: The 1998 animated Pixar film, A Bug’s Life, was a lot of fun. Here’s a clip where the ants in this particular colony are gathering food before the bully grasshoppers come to collect it:

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.