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Outdoors: Bees

Honey Bee
Honey Bee

In the opening section of Igor Stravinsky’s Scherzo Fantastiquethe violins seem to be buzzing like honeybees. That was intentional.

The young composer had been searching for an idea when he and his wife read a book called “The Life of Bees.” As he explained to his teacher…the bumblebee enthusiast Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, that he was inspired to write a composition about honeybees.

The first section of the scherzo depicts the frenetic activity inside a beehive, while the slow movement was inspired by the nuptial flight of the queen bee and the sacrificial death of the drones. (Stravinsky did have a thing about sacrificial death.)

Anyway his depiction is pretty accurate. You see, in a honeybee colony, the worker bees are sterile females and they do all of the work—they create the comb, care for the young, forage for pollen and nectar and protect the hive.

The males, called drones, do no work, but throughout the summer, they are tolerated and cared for by the worker bees.

When a virgin queen bee is ready to be bred, she leaves the hive—for the one and only time—and flies into the sky. When drones detect the scent of a virgin queen, they take off and soon are trailing the queen, looking ever so much like a living bridal veil.

The fastest drone catches her and, without going into detail, he sort of explodes during the act of mating. But that doesn’t discourage the rest of the drones, which one by one mate and then drop from the sky .

In the slow movement, Stravinsky depicts the “love theme” of the virgin queen with an alto flute, and we hear the doomed drones as they fall to the ground.

And in the final section of the piece, just as in real life, when the exhausted queen returns to the hive where she will lay fertilized eggs for the rest of her life, the hive resumes humming with activity.

Apparently, later in life, the composer denied that he had been inspired by bees. But, according to the buzz from a number of music historians, it seems that Stravinsky, when confronted with inconvenient truth, would sometimes change his tune. Sufficient evidence confirms the Scherzo Fantastique really is about ---and was originally called “Bees”.

"Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa" can be heard every Wednesday on Classical IPR.