Links to the original articles on "NZZ Folio" are included in each post. Source: NZZ Folio.

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January 1, 2006

"Mozart in the Bottle" By Luca Turin

"Mozart in the Bottle" By Luca Turin

It may be that beauty, like energy, follows a conservation law: once created, it gets endlessly recycled but never destroyed and eventually ends up as diffuse aesthetic warmth. The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961), upon receiving get-well cards, once apparently asked from his sick-bed “Anything from Mozart?” Had he lived longer, say into the 1980s, the answer might have been “No Sir, but his low-temperature heirs Abba and Elton John send their regards”. What survives of the boy genius ? Among other things, a reliance on the fifth, the handspan interval at the core of what we call Classical music.

Suppose now that the fifth is a preexisting, mathematically satisfying proportion. Then those who believe, as I do, that we smell the vibrations of molecules are faced with an interesting question: are there similar rules of molecular harmony, i.e. chords that sound good to our nose ? The consonant octave can be ruled out: smells do not repeat themselves when the frequency is doubled. But the fifth is another matter. I recently had a brain scan that revealed no major anomalies, yet it has always seemed self-evident to me that Mozart’s lighter music was fruity, and conversely that fruit, especially fruit salads, had a Mozartian character.

Remarkably, there may be a good reason for this: the two characteristic vibrations of esters and lactones, the molecular structures that are responsible for 90% of fruity smells, are placed almost exactly a fifth apart. This idea will remain at the border between speculation and fantasy until we figure out how smell works. In the meantime, it is possible to at least enjoy liquid fifths in a variety of styles. Perfumers generally shy away from overtly fruity perfumes, because most are commercial flops: women do not generally want to smell like tinned fruit. Instead, they add discreet touches of various esters to their compositions. Salicylates, for example, give the original Je Reviens (forget the modern one, buy some vintage on ebay) its mysterious green glow. Octin carbonates, are responsible for the peppery edge of such fragrances as Dior’s Fahrenheit. The greatest of all is Firmenich’s Hedione, a molecule without which modern perfumery would be impossible. First used in Eau Sauvage in small amounts, it now constitutes as much as half of modern florals. There is one fragrance, however, which throws all caution to the wind and uses every fifth in the perfumer’s orchestra: my favorite fruity, Jacomo’s Paradox for women, is the closest you can get to Mozart without using your ears. It can be found on their website.