Humming bees

With temperatures shifting unpredictably, the hibernating bee must occasionally get confused about when it’s time to rise from slumber and resume its pollinating routine. In many parts of the world, however, they’ll have long been about their business. This week’s blog gives a nod to that vital work they do, and a mention of some pieces that have taken them as their focus.

I guess there will be two pieces that first spring to most people’s minds at the mention of bees. The composers are separated by around three centuries. The first is the English composer Robert Johnson (1583–1633) who wrote prolifically for the stage, both for plays and elaborate court masques, and is thought to have had a close association with Shakespeare’s theatres. Where the bee sucks (8.570708) is one of his three surviving settings of Shakespeare’s texts (this one from The Tempest) and is almost certain to have been used in early performances of the play.

Where the bee sucks, there suck I:
In a cowslip’s bell I lie
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.

Michael Nyman wrote his saxophone concerto Where the Bee Dances (8.554168) in 1991 for the eminent soloist John Harle. The title alludes to his setting of the above Shakespeare text, which forms part of the soundtrack he wrote for Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books, and which is quoted sporadically throughout the concerto. The title has a further reference to the circular dance of bees as they seek to show the source of nectar. Nyman further explains that “…most of the material is derived from a 4-chord sequence that John once overheard me playing and which he expressed a particular liking for.”

The work is cast in a single movement; here’s the closing section.

Bee! I’m expecting you! (8.559731) is a poem by the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830–1886). In these three short stanzas, we might assume that the narrator (the author?) is the Fly, her lover the Bee, and the Frogs and the Birds maybe male and female relatives. The music is by John Duke (1899–1984), who was one of America’s foremost song composers. Asked why, as a pianist, his compositions included so few piano works and so many songs, Duke replied: “I think it is because of my belief that vocal utterance is the basis of music’s mystery.” Judge for yourself in this setting of Dickinson’s poetry.

Bee! I’m expecting you!
Was saying Yesterday
To Somebody you know
That you were due—

The Frogs got Home last Week—
Are settled, and at work—
Birds, mostly back—
The Clover warm and thick—

You’ll get my Letter by
The seventeenth; Reply
Or better, be with me—
Yours, Fly.

The names of Franz Joseph Haydn and Willoughby Bertie may not seem like peas in a pod, but there is a connection. Following the death of Johann Christian Bach in 1782, the role of organiser of the famous Bach-Abel Concerts in London fell to Willoughby Bertie, 4th Earl of Abingdon (1740–1799), who fulfilled this function for the next two seasons. It was in this capacity that the earl invited Haydn to come to London’s Hanover Square Grand Concerts (or Lord Abingdon’s Concerts, as they were popularly known). By the time he did come, Bertie had relinquished the post, and it was under different auspices that Haydn took London concert life by storm, in 1791–2; but the two men were in frequent contact, as Haydn’s Notebooks illustrate. Fortunately, Bertie’s musical talent was more resilient than his susceptibility to extravagance, which ultimately led to his financial meltdown. Here’s one of his charming songs, The Wanton Bee (8.570525).

Not so charming are the atrocities that formed the backcloth to the children’s opera Brundibár (8.570119) by the Jewish Czech composer Hans Krasá; the name of the title comes from a Czech colloquialism for a bumble bee. A few months after the opera was completed, the German army invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia, in 1939. Krasá was arrested before the opera’s first performance (which took place later in Prague’s Jewish ghetto) and was sent to Terezín, a concentration camp that fed prisoners to the death camps; Krasá himself died at Auschwitz in 1944. Shortly after the first performance, everyone concerned with its production, including the boy performers, were similarly transported.

Remarkably, Krasá found enough talented instrumentalists among the prisoners at Terezín to be able to rewrite the original piano score (which had meanwhile been smuggled into the camp) for instrumental ensemble. Brundibár received 55 performances at Terezín. Its casts needed constant replenishing when the child performers were transported to death camps after many of the shows. Although the Nazis exploited the work in propaganda intended to convince the world of their benign treatment of Terezín’s inmates, nearly all of the children who performed in the opera were deported to Auschwitz and died in the gas chambers.

The plot is a beautiful story of good triumphing over tyranny. The picture shown is that of an original concentration camp cast. The boy at the centre, playing the evil character of Brundibár, may be sporting a moustache that is more handlebar than toothbrush, but the association with Hitler is inevitable. It’s equally disturbing to hear Brundibár’s words in Little Children, how I hate ‘em seem to draw a parallel with Hitler’s rise to power.

We’ll end on a more uplifting note and an arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Flight of the Bumble Bee. The orchestral original has been arranged numerous times for different instruments, making it difficult to know which one to choose. I’ve shunned those performances that make the bee sound as angry and aggressive as Krasá’s Brundibár and will let the light touch of pianist Vladimir Horowitz (8.110606) send both the insect and this blog flying into a more serene space.

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