About this work
Debussy's first published work for solo piano, the "Danse bohémienne," of 1880, has little perhaps, in the way of appreciable local flavor or readily discernible nationalistic flair. But nevertheless, its remarkable history more than makes up for any lack of originality, even if not really compensating for the dismissive and callous reception accorded to it by one great composer whose own experiences might have prompted him to think along more charitable lines!
As Frank Dawes writes of the "Danse bohémienne," "there is perhaps a mild gipsiness that may have been picked up from the gipsy singers at the Moscow cabarets that Debussy is reputed to have frequented. In texture the piece has something of the salon style of Tchaikovsky, though very much simplified." This straightforward piece, in B minor and 2/4 time, isn't altogether without a few dashes of polka rhythm, but its only notable point of originality comes in the coda, where a tonic chord over a submediant pedal point highlights the interval of a major seventh, possible slightly Russian in character.
The piece had been written for Tchaikovsky's patroness, Nadezdha von Meck, who met Debussy for the first time on July 10, 1880, and wrote "a young pianist has just arrived from Paris, where he had just graduated at the Conservatoire, with the first prize in the class of M. Marmontel. I engaged him for the summer to give lessons to the children, to accompany singing, and to play four-handed duets with myself. This young man plays extremely well, his technique is brilliant, but he lacks any personal expression. He is too young, says he is twenty, but looks sixteen." Debussy was actually eighteen; on September 8, Mme. von Meck sent the manuscript of Debussy's "Danse bohémienne" to Tchaikovsky, with a note which read "I would like to draw your attention a short work by Debussy the pianist. This young man wants to devote himself entirely to composing; he writes really delightfully."
A month later Tchaikovsky responded; "It's really a very nice thing, though really too short; not one thought is expressed through to the end and the form is extremely messy and devoid of wholeness ... " What might at first observation appear to be an uncharitable rebuttal from an experienced composer jealous to preserve his own patronage turns out to be a thoroughly objective if pithy analysis of a piece that had its weaknesses. As Lockspeiser adds, "Debussy would not have regarded it as weakness, for the reason that the classical unity Tchaikovsky had in mind was what he revolted against. The question in form for Debussy was not 'where does this go?' nor even 'what comes next?' but 'how long can this last?' His music is not of sentiments, but of sensations."