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Exotic Vapour (2009)

Legend has it that Cleopatra herself created a recipe for a perfume that has wafted through the imagination for centuries. The recipe is of course lost, if it ever existed; while earlier theories include ingredients such as bergamot, jasmine, and blue lotus, more recent scholars believe the Mendesian perfume, as it is known, was a mixture of myrrh, olive oil, cardamom, and cinnamon.


This richly fragrant oil allegedly coated the sails of Cleopatra’s ships, so that her scent­­—carried on the wind—would bewitch Mark Antony before he set eyes on her. In a scene immortalised by William Shakespeare,


The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,

Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;

Purple the sails, and so perfumed that

The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,

Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made

The water which they beat to follow faster,

As amorous of their strokes…


... From the barge

A strange invisible perfume hits the sense

Of the adjacent wharfs….


And Antony,

Enthroned i’ the market-place, did sit alone,

Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy,

Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,

And made a gap in nature.


Antony and Cleopatra, Act II, Scene 2


In 2012, an excavation at Thmuis, close to the modern Egyptian city of Mansoura, discovered glass manufacturing kilns of the sort used to make perfume jars during the Roman period.

Steven Daverson, 2019

Instrumentation: Solo Piano

World Première: 9th October 2018; Morat Institut, Freiburg-im-Breisgau; Klaus Steffes-Holländer

UK Première: 4th May 2023, Carole Nash Recital Room; Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester; Yifan Ma

Exotic Vapour is available from Edition Gravis.

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