A rhapsody in music is a one-movement work that is episodic yet integrated, free-flowing in structure, featuring a range of highly contrasted moods, colour and tonality. An air of spontaneous inspiration and a sense of improvisation make it freer in form than a set of variations.
The word "rhapsody" is derived from the Greek rhapsōdos, a reciter of epic poetry, and came to be used in Europe by the 16th century as a designation for literary forms, not only epic poems, but also for collections of miscellaneous writings and, later, any extravagant expression of sentiment or feeling. In the 18th century, literary rhapsodies first became linked with music, as in Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart's Musicalische Rhapsodien (1786), a collection of songs with keyboard accompaniment, together with a few solo keyboard pieces (Rink 2001). The first solo piano compositions with the title, however, were Václav Jan Tomášek’s fifteen Rhapsodies, the first of which appeared in 1810 (Randel 2003). Although vocal examples may be found as late as Brahms's Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 (1869), in the 19th century the rhapsody had become primarily an instrumental form, first for the piano and then, in the second half of the century, a large-scale nationalistic orchestral "epic"—a fashion initiated by Franz Liszt (Rink 2001). Interest in Gypsy violin playing beginning in the mid-19th century led to a number of important pieces in that style, in particular by Liszt, Antonín Dvořák, George Enescu, Ernő Dohnányi, and Béla Bartók, and in the early 20th century British composers exhibiting the influence of folksong composed a number of examples, including Ralph Vaughan Williams's three Norfolk Rhapsodies, George Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad, and Frederick Delius's Brigg Fair (which is subtitled "An English Rhapsody") (Thompson and Bellingham 2002).
Some familiar examples may give an idea of the character of a rhapsody:
- Hugo Alfvén, Swedish Rhapsody No. 1 (Midsommarvaka), for orchestra
- Béla Bartók, Rhapsody No. 1 and Rhapsody No. 2 for violin and piano (also arranged for orchestra)
- Johannes Brahms, Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79, and Rhapsody in E-flat major, Op. 119, No. 4, for solo piano
- Emmanuel Chabrier, España, rhapsody for orchestra
- Claude Debussy, Première rhapsodie for clarinet and piano
- Claude Debussy, Rhapsody for alto saxophone and orchestra
- Ernő Dohnányi, Four Rhapsodies, Op. 11, for solo piano
- George Enescu, Romanian Rhapsodies Nos. 1 and 2, for orchestra
- Edward German, Welsh Rhapsody, for orchestra
- George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, Second Rhapsody, for piano and orchestra
- James P. Johnson, Yamekraw—A Negro Rhapsody
- Franz Liszt, Hungarian Rhapsodies for solo piano
- David Popper, Hungarian Rhapsody
- Sergei Rachmaninoff, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, for piano and orchestra
- Maurice Ravel, Rapsodie espagnole, for orchestra
- Ralph Vaughan Williams, Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1, for orchestra
- Pancho Vladigerov, Bulgarian Rhapsody "Vardar"
In 1975, the British rock band Queen released "Bohemian Rhapsody", a bombastic mock-operatic rock song which is in the form of a four-part suite but performed with rock instrumentation (Erlewine n.d.; Anon. n.d.). Though described by its composer Freddie Mercury as a "mock opera" (Brown 2012, 155), it has also been characterized as a "sort of seven-minute rock cantata (or ‘megasong’) in three distinct movements" (Taruskin 2009, 328). It became one of the UK's best-selling singles of all time (Roberts 2012).
- Anon. n.d. "166: Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody". Rolling Stone Music: 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Accessed 9 April 2013).
- Brown, Matthew. 2012. Debussy Redux. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 9780253357168.
- Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. n.d. "Queen: Biography". Allmusic website (Accessed 9 April 2013).
- Kennedy, Michael (ed.). 2006. "Rhapsody". The Oxford Dictionary of Music, second edition, revised. Associate editor, Joyce Bourne. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198614593.
- Randel, Don Michael (ed.). 2003. "Rhapsody". The Harvard Dictionary of Music, fourth edition. Harvard University Press Reference Library. Cambridge: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674011632.
- Rink, John. 2001. "Rhapsody". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
- Roberts, Emma. 2012. "The UK’s Biggest-Selling Singles Ever" MSN Music (14 November), p. 3 "Queen—Bohemian Rhapsody" (Accessed 9 April 2013).
- Salmen, Walter. 1966. Geschichte der Rhapsodie. Atlantis-Musikbücherei. Zürich and Freiburg im Breisgau: Atlantis.
- Taruskin, Richard. 2009. Music in the Late Twentieth Century. Oxford History of Western Music 6. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199796007.
- Thompson, Wendy, and Jane Bellingham. 2002. "Rhapsody". The Oxford Companion to Music, edited by Alison Latham. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198662129.