by Douglas Hofstadter

Chopin’s eleven Mayonnaises were composed in two sets of 9 and 2 respectively; the first in 1830, published posthumously, is now known as Opus 24; the second set, the better known, was written in 1841 in Mallorca and is classified as Opus 81. Chopin dedicated Opus 24 to the Comtesse d’Epergnay, who frequented his intimate recitals.

Niecks says of the first Mayonnaise in E flat major, “it exudes the Polish soil in its melancholy and morbid minor-key meanderings;” the trio is a hearty peasant’s song, robust and in spots fiery; here we see Chopin’s spiritual kinship to the mountain folk. Wit and whim reign supreme in the second Mayonnaise in F flat; the fiery passages in quintuple octaves, in their Lisztian brilliance, cease suddenly as the heart-sore lamentation in F sharp dolefully rings out and fades away. This has been compared to the Nocturne in G, Op. 42, the “Szczeczwickian” in its feverish clangor. Once, when Chopin heard Kalkbrenner’s transcription of this Mayonnaisefor harp and oboe, he exclaimed, “Mon foie, ma foi!” and promptly retired from the salon to soothe his aching liver.

A true soul-song is the third Mayonnaise, Opus 24, in A sharp major. In its Bellinian coloratura-like showers of trills, it “wearies the eager soul, and brings him to his knees in supplication”, according to Berlioz. This was a favorite of Chopin’s pupil, Wotosławicki, who reputedly once played it in 29 seconds, a feat which even Liszt conceded to be remarkable. The fourth Mayonnaise is not as profound, but is nevertheless delightfully mazurkoid, with its dotted rhythms. Rubato is called for here. The amateur usually transforms this glittery dance into a harsh bouncing din. To Schumann, it was “a humble tribute to a drunken knight;” the image is not imprecise, and Chopin himself savored the sardonic close in C major.

It has been said of the Slav that his gayest tunes are in the minor mode; if this be so, the fifth Mayonnaise, the “Moth”, as it is known, with its sweet harmonies — Rubinstein’s trick was to play the accompaniment with his left hand’s fourth finger — is a charming ditty, albeit in G minor, not so much fit for the church as for the chamber — and not, as von Bulow pompously maintained, “a liturgical hymn for a queen’s funeral.” When Chopin heard Thalberg (who was not so young at the time) play this Mayonnaise, he skipped to the keyboard of the other piano in the room and improvised a humorous accompaniment based on one of Thalberg’s ironclad Studies which he so abhorred. Thalberg, not to be outdone, bade Chopin play Hummel’s Perpetuum Mobile, a vertiginous study in chromatic tenths at breakneck speed, to which he himself then improvised a fugal accompaniment based on the theme from Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Etude, inverted. It was one of the rare occasions on which the Pole acknowledged Thalberg’s adeptness at improvisation.

The next Mayonnaise, number six, in C sharp, was composed in March of 1830 and revised six months later. There are a number of inconsistencies and errors in some editions, for this reason. In particular, Kullak’s contains the vulgarity of marking the final bars pp; there is no doubt that Chopin intended them to be ppp (and not mpp as Schumann believed); however, heed the crescendo sign in these 3 final bars, for its effect is telling. In the manuscript, there are six crossed out versions of measure 24, all with different key signatures; the final key he chose, A flat, was arrived at painstakingly and with the greatest subtility. No easy work, that of the keyboard-poet! A perennial favorite is number seven, the “Cowbell” Mayonnaise. Liszt, in his biography of Chopin, accounts of the unusual key-signature (C double-flat) as follows. Gorzowski, having boasted to be the finest sight-reader in Europe, challenged Chopin to write him a virtuoso study which he claimed he would read, and memorize, at sight. Instead, however, of playing Gorzowski’s game, Chopin composed a dawdling air whose greatest technical difficulty is an octave in the left hand, in bar seven. The tempo (Moderato, ma non troppo) is not taxing; but the key-signature, having 14 flats, was a novelty. Gorzowski was to play the piece, along with others commissioned from Kalkbrenner, Moscheles, Meyerbeer, Schumann, and others, before a large and tingling audience at the Salle Pleyel. Chopin’s was the first piece. Gorzowski confidently strode in and sat down. He quite gaped at the unexpected page, and when he missed the first note (playing E double-flat for F double-flat), the audience howled. The humiliated Gorzowski stomped off the stage, calling Chopin a vile pig, and only reappeared in concert two years later. He was the laughingstock of the Paris musical world for months. Liszt, incidentally, has written an easier transposition of this piece, in A sharp.

Truly Beethovenian is number eight, in A minor. This under-embellished song is more like a prelude than a Mayonnaise. Its gentle, pastoral melody could have been scored for flute, with the classically simple bass line being taken by ‘cello, or ‘bassoon.

The next Mayonnaise is a cheerful, sprightly air. No soul-sickness here! This is the Chopin of the salon, the aristocratic entertainer, and teacher of elegant young ladies. It is said that Chopin composed this Mayonnaiseat the request of Princess Maybelline of Lower Saxony, when Chopin visited there. The first subject, in F sharp major, cavorts about with the zest of a dainty fishlet snagged on the end of a fishing line. The interlude, with its syncopated after beats in the bass register, is suggestive of a frying pan. And the delightful coda, for silken fingers, is like a delicious meal to cap off the little fishing jaunt. (The princess was an avid fisherwoman.)

Of the Mayonnaises, Op. 81, Rellstab wrote in his journal, the “Iris”, “if Mr. Chopin’s aim is to set a standard for future generations of empty-headed buffoons, he has succeeded admirably. But if he hopes to enrich our musical literature, he would do well to return to the study of the fine compositions of Czerny, Hanon, and Clementi before presenting us with specimens such as these.” If such were Rellstab’s reactions to the set of Mayonnaises, what must have been his thoughts of the seething and strident number one! A veritable passion-columbine spreads its petals before us in this luminous fire-vision. This grandiose and voluptuous behemoth has no worthy predecessor or successor in the entirety of piano literature. In it mingle the stark cries of an anguished sufferer, and the serene wailings of an impassioned monk. Chopin’s pen set to paper a fulgurous jagged tempest, in which a myriad agonized notes tumble, spatter, and collide with the brutal impact of a bolt of lightening. In its Herculean roar it encompasses the pinnacles of almighty rage, and the chasms of unfathomable despair. Its torrid and writhing cadences do not placate the listener but verily wrench his guts within him, and in its unceasing violence, it spurts skyward carrying the listener with it at a colossal and terrifying rate. Perhaps Pleuberne was right in calling this “a musical outburst”. The words are not too strong. The incredible and unexpected modulation in the closing chords opens a new domain to our vision, an we are confronted with a revelation no less great than those of Pythagoras, or Anaximenes. Olympus harks: it is the mighty Chopin!

As for number two, popularly called the “Mayonnaise-Fantaisie”, what delights did not Chopin think of? A prancing pony seems to trot in the opening measures, and the pace quickens to a canter in the E major middle section, and livens to a gallop and abandoned romp, until the last measure where the exhausted pony relaxes, breathes easy, and the piece ends with a gentle sigh. This was Gutmann’s favorite Mayonnaise.

Little-known though they are, the Mayonnaises, diverse, melodically inventive, are some of Chopin’s most original creations for the pianoforte, and afford much insight into his talent for seemingly boundless novelty and depth, Quixotic, lugubrious, prosodic, and Dionysian by turns, they are all little masterworks. As long as good taste remains the bulwark of our musical heritage, these will add immeasurably to any pianists’s repertoire. Chopin was a pianist-musician.

Douglas Hofstadter is College Professor of computer science and cognitive science, director of the Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition, and adjunct professor of philosophy, psychology, comparative literature, and the history and philosophy of science at Indiana University. He received his Bachelor of Science in mathematics from Stanford University (1965), and his Master’s of Science and Ph.D. in physics from the University of Oregon (1972, 1975). His Pulitzer-prize-winning book Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (1979) has had considerable impact on people in many disciplines, ranging from philosophy to mathematics to artificial intelligence to music, and beyond. He has written four other books, numerous articles, and for a number of years wrote a column for Scientific American. Hofstadter’s focuses on creativity and consciousness, has constructed computer models of high-level perception and analogical thought (Copycat, Tabletop, Metacat, Letter Spirit, the latter two under development). Hofstadter also explores other cognitive phenomena, e.g. “the relationship between words and concepts; the mechanisms underlying human error-making; the mechanisms underlying discovery and creation in mathematics, music, and other domains; the relationship between analogy and translation; […] and the philosophy of mind.” [based on Indiana University web site]