Beethoven: Music is a dreadful thing. What is it? I don't understand it. What does it mean?
Schindler: It exalts the soul.
Beethoven: Utter nonsense! If you hear a marching band, is your soul exalted? No, you march. If you hear a waltz, you dance. If you hear a mass, you take communion. It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism. So, now-- what was in my mind when I wrote this? A man is trying to reach his lover. His carriage has broken down in the rain. The wheels are stuck in the mud. She will only wait so long. This is the sound of his agitation. "This is how it is," the music is saying. "Not how you are used to being. Not how you are used to thinking. But like this."
The above dialogue from the 1994 film Immortal Beloved takes place at a rehearsal of Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major, also known as the Kreutzer Sonata. Its composer, in his obstinately veiled way, is telling Herr Schindler how he lost the love of his life-- and how he subsequently converted his grief into art. Alternating between frenzied impatience and melancholy resignation, the Sonata indeed mirrors a psyche in upheaval, struggling to express its loss to the world at large.
With something of a literary wink, Beethoven's soliloquy is largely borrowed from Kreitzerova Sonata, Tolstoy's 1889 novella inspired by the musical composition. Aroused to homicidal rage after watching his young wife play a duet with another man, the protagonist attempts to blame his crime on music. If (as he argues) a melody has the power to provoke ungovernable impulses, then no one is responsible for their actions, however destructive. They are merely obeying the sirens' irresistible call.
The moment in which the wife succumbs to her own personal siren song achieved immortality in a 1901 painting by René François Xavier Prinet. Executed in sepia-tinged monochrome, the painting is sensuous, titillating-- and a premonition of pure regret. The viewer knows that nothing good will come of this moment. Yet who can tear their eyes away? How ironic that in three short decades, this doomed embrace would be known by the swooning tag line, "The longest kiss in history"...
For many years, I only knew Tabu as a ghastly stench sold at a perpetual discount in drugstores. I could never understand why older women sighed its name in such tones of rapture; did they really think that shit smelled good? Gradually, I realized I was the victim of more than simply a generational misunderstanding. Their Tabu was magic; ours was crap-- why? Thus did I learn of the dread beast known as reformulation-- and tasted in full the bitterness of being a perfume lover.
Tabu (1932) was the debut fragrance of the House of Dana, founded in Spain by former Myrurgia director Javier Serra. Not counting a brief discontinuation during the mid-1970's, Tabu brought in solid profits, enabling Dana to purchase the proprietary formula of another classic, Houbigant Chantilly. Dana marketed both as prestige fragrances until 1995, when Renaissance Cosmetics, Inc. entered the picture. Renaissance's corporate mission: to acquire the licenses to dozens of vintage fragrances and reintroduce them to the mass market. This process -- which involved some necessary cheapening and corner-cutting -- continued when Renaissance became New Dana Perfumes Company in 1999. In 2001, NDPC commissioned Sophia Grojsman (a perfumer not exactly known for her subtlety) to treat Tabu to an overhaul. The result, in its black-and-white neo-Art Deco packaging, is the fragrance I knew and loathed. (Sorry, Sophia.)
On a visit to a local antique shop this past autumn, I spied a familiar liplocked duo emblazoned on a vintage cardboard perfume box. Curious, I asked to take a closer look, ascertaining first whether the proprietress would mind me opening it. She didn't, so I did. From its shape, typeface, and outer packaging, I guessed the bottle's age to be about thirty years old. Strictly for a lark (and fully expecting to gain nothing from this encounter but a pair of red and watering eyes) I pulled the cap off, took a sniff-- and received a revelation.
The first surprise: I recognized that scent instantly. A basso profundo patchouli edged with incense and vanilla, it must have permeated my life from such an early age that I had no idea it possessed a proper name. It was the scent of every antique store, curio cabinet, Victorian museum, used book emporium, and metaphysical shop I'd ever set foot in-- tripled. I was instantly hooked.
However, I would not be swayed so readily. Some stubborn part of me refused to admit that the old ladies were right. What was Tabu, really, except an old bottle of perfume that no one wanted anyway? It returned to its place on the display case shelf, where I cruelly forced it to sit for several months more.
Still, even under lock and key, Tabu's hold on me remained firm. Every two weeks or so, I stopped in and asked to smell it again. Each time, the proprietress obliged this little ritual with evident good humor... but at some point, her patience with me finally reached its natural limit. The next time I crossed the antique shop threshold, she sagely disappeared into a back office- - leaving me to fume in frustration in front of the locked display case, where my treasure sat just out of reach.
The trick worked. Within days I returned, dark circles under my eyes-- and cash (at last!) in hand.
Where other patchoulis content themselves with sketching neon scenes of Haight Ashbury during its heyday, vintage Tabu (like its descendents, Borneo 1834 and Noir Patchouli) is a candlelit Rembrandt, a chiaroscuro essay painted in moody shades of umber and sienna. Even in the bottle, it seems impossibly heady, almost winelike; seduction can be found in its notes, but also plenty of nostalgia and regret. The reformulation I'd so despised in the drugstore had clearly excised these very qualities from the formula. This, one cannot do-- for Tabu's weighty sadness is part of its soul. Omit it, and only emptiness remains. Someone should have told Sophia Grojsman that tabu in its original sense means both "sacred" and "forbidden". Certain things must not be adulterated.
I imagine that the modern perfume consumer for whom Tabu was defanged and declawed would be horrified at Javier Serra's original brief. "Un parfum de puta (a perfume for a whore)" might have attracted quite a different clientele-- yet it seems to me that perfumer Jean Carles got it exactly right. A puta, while provocative, is also a human being-- one more entitled to her melancholy, perhaps, than the average sheltered bourgeoise. Accordingly, Tabu is a fragrance of many shadows. Full sunlight is not for this wandering star.
Scent Elements: NowSmellThis lists bergamot, coriander, neroli, orange, clove bud oil, clover, jasmine, narcissus, rose, ylang-ylang, amber, benzoin, cedar, civet, oakmoss, patchouli, sandalwood, and vetiver; Cleopatra's Boudoir adds basil, carnation, resins, precious woods, musk, and vanilla to this already impressive roster of notes. For once, the hype seems reasonable: I believe Tabu contains them all. It's how Tabu manages to juggle all of them and still remain coherent, even authoritative, that is the miracle.