What is a Rhapsody?

It’s nice to break out of the confines of form and structure isn’t it? Go a little bit wild? Enter the Rhapsody, music’s answer to letting it all hang loose. Well, sort of. Michael Beek explains more

what is a Rhapsody in music

We can thank the Greeks for the idea of the Rhapsody, though their Rhapsodies were rather more word-based – poetry to be exact. Poetic Rhapsodies were a kind of recital of all the best bits of poems, brought together in one colourful epic.

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And that’s really what a musical Rhapsody is, a piece of music of indeterminate length and with no formal structure, comprised of a number of different musical ideas. A Rhapsody is all about dynamics: light and shade, high and low, loud and soft, happy and sad… It’s a story, a journey and usually quite the musical ride.

Top examples are Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, painting quite the picture in music, and Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a sprawling set of variations on Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. Both are single-movement flights of fancy that see a pianist and orchestra going head to head, so they are concerto-like. But they’re not concertos… they’re Rhapsodies!

There’s another famous Rhapsody, too… ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Queen’s 1975 epic is every bit a Rhapsody when you really think about it. It’s long, it changes stylistic gear a lot and tells a story. All the boxes are ticked.

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(Video: Rhapsody in Blue… Martin James Bartlett (piano); RPO/Eric Whitacre – BBC Proms, August 2015)