I've reviewed Corday's lovely perfume Toujours Moi here on Yesterday's Perfume, but I've been wanting to "hear" it ever since I learned that composer Harry Revel translated it into music in the 1940s.
Revel had the synaesthetic inspiration to turn scent into melody when he caught a whiff of Toujours Moi on a Parisian woman. Apparently, it was only when he heard the Theremin instrument in the soundtrack of Hitchcock's Spellbound that he felt he was truly able to capture perfume's "ethereal quality."
I wanted to hear for myself how successful he was, so I got the 45, had a friend digitize it for me (thanks, Steeby!), and below are the first couple of Corday 'fumes-turned-tunes: Toujours Moi and Fame.
I'm not sure if I agree with the claim on the back of the album that "it is probably the only successful attempt to capture and reproduce...the 'sounds' of fragrance and scent." As fun and at times beautiful as the music is on "Perfume Set to Music," I don't see the correspondence between the perfume and the tune. Toujours Moi, for example, is a seductive and sultry scent, and its musical counterpart? It sounds like the soundtrack to a Saturday morning cartoon, or the background music of an old movie. Interesting, but not perfume-like. Any Debussy piece, to me, sounds infinitely more perfumey.
Just listen for yourself. Do the tracks below for Toujours Moi and Fame sound like perfume to you? Or even those perfumes? Let me know! (One caveat: it takes at least two minutes to download the MP3 once you click on the link. Give it time; it's worth it!) And for your viewing pleasure and edification, I've also included a video of a cat playing a Theremin. It is awesome.
Perfume Set to Music: The "Sound" of Scents (liner notes)
"The suite of musical sketches on this record is the result of a new and fascinating field of exploration by the British-born composer, Harry Revel. Inspired by the heady scents of the famous French Corday perfumes, it is probably the only successful attempt to capture and reproduce with musical instruments and human voice the 'sounds' of fragrance and scent.
Revel attributes the development of the sketches to a chance meeting he had with an attractive Frenchwoman in the bar of the Hotel George V in Paris late in 1936. 'The fragrance of her perfume,' the composer relates, 'transposed itself in my mind to a melodic theme. I was curious to know what the scent was and she explained that it was a famous perfume made by Corday — Toujours Moi. It occurred to me then that if one fragrance could inspire a melody there must be others that could do the same. Before leaving Paris I visited the offices of Corday and told them of my experience. They were intrigued by the event and suggested I visit Grasse, in Southern France, where Corday secures the oils and materials which go into the making of their perfumes. While in Grasse, and later, back in Paris, I spent many hours sampling perfumes and finally the idea for a suite became fixed in my mind. Before I returned to the States I had set down the first draft of a series of sketches which I titled 'Perfume Set To Music.'
MAGIC OF THE THEREMIN
"In the years that followed, I attempted to put the finishing touches to the sketches but was disturbed by my inability to score them in such a way that they would convey the actual ethereal quality of rare perfume.
It was not until I attended the premier of the motion picture 'Spellbound' and heard its magnificent score which employs the Theremin that I found the answer to my problem. The Theremin is a difficult musical instrument to describe. From it comes a sustained sound which is drawn out by moving the hands before the sounding board without touching it. The moment I heard its subtle tones I knew that in this instrument lay the key to the scoring of my suite.
Shortly thereafter, Revel completed the suite and the actual recording took place at the RCA Victor studios in Hollywood. Dr. Samuel Homan, who participated in the sound track recording of 'Spellbound' played the Theremin, with the orchestra and chorus under the direction of Leslie Baxter."