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The Bee's Knees: Music With A Definite Buzz

It's the dog days of summer, but the sound of the season belongs to the bees. Fortunately, buzzing bees have inspired some lovely music. Morning Edition commentator Miles Hoffman has some suggestions.

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Zubin Mehta conducts.
Chuck Daellenbach plays "Flight of the Bumblebee" on solo tuba — fast..
Accordionist Annie Gong lets loose on Rimsky-Korsakov.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Christopher Seaman perform the overture to Vaughan Williams' music for "The Wasps."
Joseph Szigeti rips through "The Bee."
A performance of Dowland's "Silly Bees."
A charming setting of an Emily Dickinson poem.
Soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf takes on this deceivingly simple tune.
Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It is certainly the dog days of summer. But the sound of summer belongs to the bees.

(Soundbite of bee swarm)

MONTAGNE: And as we will discover over the next few minutes, buzzing bees have inspired some very lovely music.

On this summer morning, let's welcome MORNING EDITION's classical music commentator, Miles Hoffman.

Hey. Good morning, Miles.

MILES HOFFMAN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Should we just go ahead and play the "Flight of the Bumblebee"?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOFFMAN: I think what we have to. I think we can't get around it. The question, though, is which version should we play? There's an interesting story to "Flight of the Bumblebee." It was originally an orchestral interlude to an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov. It was called "The Tale of the Tsar Saltan." There have been versions of this for just about every instrument, including the tuba.

But I discovered one that has become my new favorite. It's a woman named Annie Gong playing "Flight of the Bumblebee" on the accordion.

(Soundbite of music, "Flight of the Bumblebee")

HOFFMAN: Annie Gong playing "Flight of the Bumblebee" at the speed of light, basically, on the accordion.

And, Renee, you may remember that the "Flight of the Bumblebee" was used as the theme music for the TV show "The Green Hornet." And I'm here to tell you that this use of the music showed a very troubling disrespect for entomological accuracy, because a hornet is not a bee. A hornet is a wasp, and hornets actually sometimes even eat bees. What do you think of that?

MONTAGNE: Huh. Well, then. Let's not make that mistake. But in speaking of wasps, is there any wasp music that we should know about?

HOFFMAN: There's actually a very well-known piece by Ralph Vaughan Williams, an English composer. In 1909, he wrote incidental music for the Aristophanes play "The Wasps." And this is how the overture sounds.

(Soundbite of overture, "The Wasps")

MONTAGNE: That is very buzzy, Miles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOFFMAN: It does get going after that. There's some nice tunes after that, but it's very buzzy.

MONTAGNE: Surely, though, composers haven't been inspired by bees and wasps just because of the buzz. One would think that would very limiting.

HOFFMAN: No. But composers over the years - over the centuries, in fact - have been inspired to do musical picture-painting of bees because of the buzz, but because also of the speed and darting movements of bees. And so you have an association with virtuosity. And composers have written various pieces where people play fast, where the fingers go flying, and you have lots of sudden accents - a lot of quick ups and downs.

(Soundbite of music, "The Bee")

HOFFMAN: That's a piece called, surprisingly enough, "The Bee," Renee, by a composer named Franz Schubert. But this Franz Schubert was not the Franz Schubert. This was a Franz Schubert who preferred to be known as Francois Schubert.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOFFMAN: And that is the only piece that anybody knows about that he wrote. And it's funny, because the violinist who we just heard, Alexis Galperine, wrote in his program notes: This piece is very short, and it's as if the window is open and the bee finds the open window and leaves very quickly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Is there a nice, calm, peaceful bee piece that we could listen to, Miles?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOFFMAN: I'm a little torn, Renee, because I found a lovely song by the English Renaissance composer John Dowland that's called "It Was a Time When Silly Bees Could Speak." And it's got no flying or stinging or buzzing.

And there's also a lovely 20th century piece by the American composer John Duke. He wrote a setting of Emily Dickinson's poem "Bee, I'm Expecting You," which is written from the standpoint of a fly. And that's a very charming piece, but it channels - it's got a little bit of bee personality in the piano part. It's got a little buzzing there.

So we'll - why don't we go with the 18th century English composer Thomas Arne? He set Shakespeare's - well, Ariel's speech from "The Tempest" that begins: Where the bee sucks, so suck I. And this is a very beautiful setting.

(Soundbite of song, "Where the Bee Sucks")

Ms. ANN MONOYOIS (Singer): (Singing) Where the bee sucks, so suck I. In a cowslip's bell I lie. There I couch when owls do cry. When owls do cry. When owls do cry.

MONTAGNE: Oh, that's lovely.

HOFFMAN: Isn't that charming? I think that's really pretty. That was, by the way, the soprano Ann Monoyios. And she was singing with the Folger Consort. It's a lovely recording. And no buzzing, no darting, no flying, but inspired perhaps by the charm of the bee and flowers and things like.

MONTAGNE: I accept that. I accept no need to be literal...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: ...when we're thinking of bees and classical music.

So make your choice here, good piece to go out on.

HOFFMAN: All right. Well, let's go out with one that this also not literal -not literal at all, actually. It's called "Buzzing the Bee." And this was probably a dance in the early 1900s, buzzing the bee, like the foxtrot, the bunny hug. And this is a recording that was made from a restored piano roll that was cut by none other than George Gershwin. So, in essence, we're going to be hearing George Gershwin playing "Buzzing the Bee."

(Soundbite of music, "Buzzing the Bee")

MONTAGNE: Well, that was just the bee's knees, Miles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOFFMAN: And I guess I should buzz off now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Well, I wouldn't want to put it like that. But just have a lovely afternoon.

HOFFMAN: How about that? That's good.

MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us once again.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee. It's my pleasure.

(Soundbite of music, "Buzzing the Bee")

MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is the violist of the American Chamber Players and author of the "NPR Classical Music Companion."

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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