09 September 2021

The Greeks have a word
for it (20) Rhapsody

A rhapsody has an air of spontaneous inspiration … musical instruments in a shop in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Before leaving for Greece, I caught up on some movies I had missed on Netflix, including watching Bohemian Rhapsody, telling the story of Freddie Mercury’s life, beginning and ending with his role in Live Aid in 1985.

It is hard to believe that it is as long ago as 1975 when Queen released Bohemian Rhapsody, a bombastic mock-operatic rock song in the form of a four-part suite, but performed with rock instrumentation.

At the time, Freddie Mercury described it as a ‘mock opera,’ but it has also been characterised as a ‘sort of seven-minute rock cantata or ‘megasong’ in three distinct movements.’ It is one of the best-selling singles of all time.

In music, a rhapsody 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 ῥαψῳδός (rhapsōidos, a reciter of epic poetry, or a rhapsodist. The word 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 writing. Later, the word was used for any extravagant expression of sentiment or feeling.

By 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 with his Hungarian Rhapsody.

After Liszt, the style was developed, Dvořák, Debusy, Enescu, Dohnányi, and Béla Bartók. In the early 20th century, it influenced and inspired George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Ralph Vaughan Williams in his three Norfolk Rhapsodies, George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad based on the poems of AE Housman, Herbert Howells and his Three Rhapsodies and Frederick Delius’s Brigg Fair or An English Rhapsody.

The Greek word ῥαψῳδεῖν (rhapsōidein) means ‘to sew songs together.’ This word illustrates how the oral epic poet, or rhapsode, would build a repertoire of diverse myths, tales and jokes to include in the content of the epic poem. With his experience and his skills in improvisation, he would shift the content of the epos according to the taste and location of an audience.

In classical Greek, the performance of epic poetry was called ῥαψῳδία (rhapsōidia), and its performer ῥαψῳδός (rhapsōidos).

Rhapsodes notably performed the epics of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the poetry of Hesiod, and the satires of Archilochus. The singer would hold a staff (ῥάβδος, rhabdos) in his hand, perhaps, like the sceptre in the Homeric assembly, as a symbol of the right to a hearing or to ‘emphasise the rhythm or to give grandeur to their gestures.’

In Plato’s dialogue Ion, Socrates confronts a star player rhapsode. Rhapsodes are often depicted in Greek art, wearing their signature cloak and carrying a staff.

We do not know whether Hesiod and the poets of the Iliad and Odyssey would have recognised and accepted the name of rhapsode. But the word rhapsōidos was in use as early as Pindar (522-443 BC).

And so, the word rhapsody, which the Greeks have given us, provides the links in a long cultural chain from Homer, the Iliad and Odyssey, Plato and Socrates, through Liszt, Vaughan Williams and Gershwin, to Freddie Mercury, Queen and Bohemian Rhapsody.

Yesterday: Pharmacy

Tomorrow: Holocaust

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