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Detail of beehive. Claude LeJeune. Pseames de David, Octave et Basse part book, 1603. Call number M1490.L55 CASE. Library of Congress Music Division.

Musical Buzz for National Honey Bee Day

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August 17 is National Honey Bee Day – and the Music Division has all the music you need to celebrate the buzz! Now, full disclosure: “Melissa” means “honey bee” in Greek, and Melissa officinalis is the Latin name for lemon balm, an herb used to attract honey bees. This is why I’m extra excited to share all this great music with you!

Frances Benjamin Johnson. [Reproduction of print showing apiary], circa 1915-1925. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Detail of beehive. Claude Le Jeune. Pseaumes de David, Octave et Basse part book, 1603. Call number M1490.L55 CASE. Library of Congress Music Division.


On the subject of Latin, check out this image of a bee hive in our 1603 edition of psalms by Claude Le Jeune (ca. 1530-1600). The Latin text above the hive says, “Sic vos non vobis,” an excerpt of the ancient motto, “Sic vos non vobis mellificatis apes.” With the image of the beehive in this part book, the meaning makes perfect sense, “Thus do ye, not for yourselves, make honey, ye bees.” The Music Division has digitized all five part books for the collection Pseaumes de David in which this precious woodcut resides. You can find it in the Octave et Basse part book, Image 125. For another bee work from this period, buzz along to the Rare Book and Special Collection Division to find a bee madrigal printed in 1634! “Melissomelos, or Bee’s madrigall” is inside The Feminin’ Monarchi’, or, the Histori of Bee’s by Charles Butler. You can read all about it in former Music Division Chief James Pruett’s article “Charles Butler – Musician, Grammarian, Apiarist” published in The Musical Quarterly (Vol. 49 no. 4).



So, what would life be like as a bee? According to G.P. Mouvrier’s 1844 song “I Wish to Be Like a Bee,” it sounds pretty luxurious, from “sipping sweets” to “dallying here and there.” An arranger only known as E.M.A. adapted Felix Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song” from Songs Without Words in 1881. He added words to Mendelssohn’s piano work – and changed the key from A major to G major – to ponder that very question in “Oh, if I were a bee.” The Music Division holds the 1881 published copyright deposit and the arranger’s holograph score in the A.P. Schmidt Company Archives. In fact, that collection also contains the holograph for another bee song, “The Little Brown Bee,” Op. 9 by Amy Beach for unaccompanied SSAA choir. In Beach’s 1891 setting of Margaret Eytinge’s poem, we learn that bees can be quite talkative with one another.

Amy Beach. “The Little Brown Bee,” Op. 9, 1891. Box 26, Folder 10, A.P. Schmidt Company Archives, Music Division, Library of Congress.

According to composer Mari Paldi’s 1914 work for piano The Bumble Bee Goes Visiting – another holograph in the A.P. Schmidt Company Archives – they love to travel, too. The dovetailing allegretto trills throughout the score are an approach besides Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s chromatic notation of bees in his famous (or infamously fast) Flight of the Bumble Bee. You’ve probably heard instrumentalists perform it as a show-stopper finale, but did you know that it was originally an interlude in Act 3 of Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1900 opera Legend of Tsar Saltan (M1045.R57 S66)? For some variety, try another chromatic workout for violin and piano, The Bee: Capriccio from Suite in G minor by Carl Bohm (call number M221.B). For another technical showstopper, listen to this historic recording of violinist Maud Powell perform “The Bee (L’Abeille)” by François Schubert (1808-1878) from Bagatelles, Op. 13.

Sheet music cover. Henry I. Marshall, composer and Stanley Murphy, lyricist. “Be My Little Baby Bumble Bee,” 1912. Box 51, Edison Sheet Music collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

For the romantically inclined, Albert H. Fitz’s 1901 song “Be My Little Bumble Bee” has a marriage proposal ready-made in the lyrics! Follow along with the sheet music to Henry I. Marshall’s “Be My Little Baby Bumble Bee” while you listen to this recording from 1912. You may also enjoy “Two Little Love Bees” from the 1909 operetta The Spring Maid (Die Sprudelfee) by Heinrich Reinhardt (1865-1922). Follow along with the sheet music while you listen to this 1911 Victor recording. After all, who says only love birds get to have all the fun?

If you ever wonder whether bees get in the bonnets of other insects, you may wish to consult John Sylvester’s 1906 song “Said the Hornet to the Bee.” Duncan J. Muir’s 1900 piano piece “The Wasp and the Bumble Bee” features another rivalry (spoiler alert: the bumble bee wins). At the very least, bee stings can be painful as relayed to us in 1800 by composer Michael Kelly in “The Mischievous Bee.” In those cases, you just want to keep the bees away. Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) is the composer to help you with that. In his 1939 composition Incantations, Op. 201 for unaccompanied male choir, the second movement will be your balm, “Incantation pour conjurer la fureur des abeilles” (Incantation to ward off the fury of bees). Alejo Carpentier’s text for the work is based upon Aztec poetry.

If this blog post and your love of honey bees move to you to sing, John Duke (1899-1984) composed a set of Six Songs by Emily Dickinson for soprano and piano which includes two poems about bees – “Nobody knows this little rose” (No. 5) and “Bee! I’m expecting you!” (No. 6). Ernst Bacon (1898-1990) also set five poems by Dickinson for high voice and piano, with “To make a prairie” (No. 4) yet another poem about bees.

Many works I feature here were brought to my attention by my fellow Music Reference Specialists Susan Clermont and James Wintle. Susan is personally quite enthusiastic about National Honey Bee Day and let me know about the holiday, too. It takes a hive of busy music librarian bees to bring all this buzz to you!

Comments (2)

  1. I named one of my hives Melissae after the Greek bee acolytes of the bee goddess Potnia!

  2. So many composers and writers seemed to be inspired by these busy buzzing wonders! I didn’t realize there were so many musical works for them. Thanks for a swarmingly entertaining post.

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