The Firebirds and the Bees: Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique

The Firebirds and the Bees: Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique

After a dazzling, all-Russian program for our Opening Night Concert, featuring Yefim Bronfman performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, we continue to explore the music of the Tsars’ realm when Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada returns to conduct our first Classical Series concert of the 2019–20 Season: Stravinsky’s Firebird, September 19, 21, and 22. The concert opens with the Scherzo fantastique, one of the works that paved the way for Stravinsky’s masterful ballet. In this post, discover how the love-lives of bees inspired this buzzing masterpiece. Visit houstonsymphony.org for tickets and more information.

The Life of Bees

During the summer of 1907, the 25-year-old Igor Stravinsky wrote to his teacher, Russia’s revered elder composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: “I am hard at work on […] the composition of the ‘Fantastic Scherzo,’ ‘Bees’ […] the idea of this Scherzo came to me in St. Petersburg, as you know, but I did not have a subject. Just now Katya [Stravinsky’s wife] and I have read Maeterlinck’s Life of the Bees, a partly artistic, partly philosophical book that pleased me, as they say, to my toes.”

Stravinsky, photographed in 1910.

Having recently completed a symphony under Rimsky-Korsakov’s tutelage, a stand-alone orchestral scherzo was a typical next project for a budding Russian composer. Stravinsky’s work would prove anything but typical, however; though he adhered to the traditional form of the scherzo—a fast, dancing piece with a contrasting, slower middle section—he was especially interested in exploring the most unusual octatonic and whole-tone harmonies he had studied with his teacher. Rimsky-Korsakov and other Russian composers had long exploited these exotic sonorities as special effects to conjure a supernatural musical atmosphere—Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1902 opera Kashchey the Deathless (which featured the same fairytale villain that would appear in Stravinsky’s The Firebird) was a case in point.

Stravinsky, however, would use such harmonies to depict the natural world, not a supernatural one. Best remembered as a French symbolist playwright, Maeterlinck suggestively anthropomorphized scenes from the lifecycle of bees in his book, which vividly describes a hives’ “[…] innumerable agitations of the honeycomb, the perpetual, enigmatic and crazy jiggling of the nurses on the brood chamber, the bridges and the ladders animated by the wax, the invading spirals of the queen, the various and incessant activities of the crowd, the ruthless and useless effort, the comings and goings overwhelmed with ardor, the sleep ignored except in cradles that are already waiting for the work of tomorrow, the very repose of death far from a sojourn that admits neither sickness nor tombs […]”

A kiss that can never be forgotten

The outer sections of Stravinsky’s scherzo depict this buzzing world with the most adventurous harmonies he had written thus far:

Whether this is an homage to the famous Flight of the Bumblebee from Rimsky-Korsakov’s fairytale opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan or an attempt to surpass it, only Stravinsky could answer. His unique scoring features three harps and a plethora of woodwinds, but omits timpani, trombones, and tuba, making for light, transparent sonorities perfectly matched to his source of inspiration. At moments, the ceaseless activity pauses as solo woodwinds converse, evoking the bees’ secret language.

The contrasting middle section represents the nuptial flight of the queen bee and her doomed suitors. The tempo slows for an alto flute solo as Stravinsky abandons his experiments in favor of yearning Wagnerian harmonies. Stravinsky explained this stylistic transformation to Rimsky-Korsakov thus: “The harmony in ‘The Bees’ will be fierce, like a toothache, but all at once it should turn pleasant, like cocaine.”

Thousands try, but only a few drones successfully mate with the queen while flying high in the air. Though the act itself is fleeting, the exertion kills the males, allowing Maeterlinck to wax Wagnerian:

“Prodigious nuptials, these, the most fairy-like that can be conceived, azure and tragic, raised high above life by the impetus of desire; imperishable and terrible, unique and bewildering, solitary and infinite. An admirable ecstasy, wherein death, supervening in all that our sphere has of most limpid and loveliest, in virginal, limitless space, stamps the instant of happiness on the sublime transparency of the great sky; purifying in that immaculate light the something of wretchedness that always hovers around love, rendering the kiss one that can never be forgotten.”

As fragments of the love theme arise in the lower strings with increasing passion, the music builds to a suitable anticlimax: the lifeless drone falls away and the queen returns to her humming hive.

Once the piece was complete, Stravinsky decided to downplay his source of inspiration, simply titling the piece “Scherzo fantastique” (in later years he would go even further to deny Maeterlinck’s influence, in part because the author threatened to sue Stravinsky for copyright infringement when the piece was presented as a ballet in Paris in 1917). In private, however, Stravinsky was likely more open about the bees that buzzed through his score. Rimsky-Korsakov was delighted by the new work, although he did not live to see its premiere in 1909. Another man did, however: Sergei Diaghilev, who would commission Stravinsky to compose The Firebird later that year.

Don’t miss Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique at Stravinsky’s Firebird, September 19, 21, and 22. Visit houstonsymphony.org for tickets and more information.

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