Debussy: Danse bohémienne

Our impression of French composer Debussy (1862-1918) is that he is an impressionist composer. But this is not the full picture of him. He has also composed some musical works in neo-classical style including Danse bohémienne.

Danse bohémienne was composed in 1880 when Debussy lived in Russia. Comment of this piece by his contemporary composers was not good. Nadezhda von Meck, the patroness of Tchaikovsky and employer of Debussy (he taught von Meck’s children music when he lived in Russia in 1880-1882) sent Debussy’s Danse bohémienne to Tchaikovsky in September 1880. A month later he wrote back to her, “It is a very pretty piece, but it is much too short. Not a single idea is expressed fully, the form is terribly shriveled, and it lacks unity”.

From the reviews of Naxos CD Debussy: Piano works Vol 1, Danse bohémienne is “a piece that lives up to its title in rhythmic energy, inevitably suggesting Chopin’s use of native Polish dance.”

When we talk about Polish dance, we usually think about Mazurka and Polanaise. But they are all in triple meter while here Danse bohémienne is in duple time. So I search the google and find that there are only two types of Polish danse in duple meter: Krakowiak and Polka.

The Krakowiak is a fast, syncopated Polish dance in duple time from the region of Kraków and Little Poland. This dance is known to imitate horses, the steps mimic their movement, for horses were well loved in the Krakow region of Poland for their civilian as well as military use.

Polish composer Frédéric Chopin had composed a bravura concert krakowiak in his Grand Rondeau de Concert Rondo à la Krakowiak in F major for piano and orchestra (Op. 14, 1828).

A lively dance in duple meter, originating in Bohemia and performed by couples.

I am still wondering whether this piece is Krakowiak or Polka. It is interesting to find traits of both types of dance in this piece. For example the semiquaver passage at the end of middle section of Danse bohémienne is very similar to the figurations in Chopin’s Grand Rondeau de Concert Rondo à la Krakowiak (luckily both scores are available in imslp for free download).

Anderson, Keith. Debussy: Piano works Vol 1. Naxos 8.553290, 1995. CD.

Magrath, Jane. Pianist’s Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature . Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Co, 1995.

Poznansky, Alexander. Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man.New. York: Schirmer Books, 1991

Trochimczyk, Maja. “KRAKOWIAK (CRACOVIENNE)” Polish Dances. Polish Music Center, (Flora L. Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California), Aug 2000. Web. 15 Nov 2014.

Copyright © 2014 Alice Ho — All Rights Reserved


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