Back in 1939 Heitor Villa-Lobos, encouraged by Edgard Varese, mapped the pattern of the constellation Orion onto musical staves, and, in the chance-enhances-music process of millimetrization, wrote a work for piano about the three stars - As Três Marias - that make up "Orion's belt": Alnitak, Mintaka and Alnilam. These three pieces, which Paul Bowles praised as "brief, birdlike, butterfly-like things", are a modernist throwback for Villa-Lobos, who was entering his "national" stage, based more on folklore and Brasilidade than experiments that focussed on newness.
Fast forward to 1974. The 31-year-old Brazilian composer José Antônio Rezende de Almeida Prado had just returned to Brazil after finishing his studies with Olivier Messiaen and Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and with György Ligeti and Lukas Foss in Darmstadt. He was of a generation in Brazil twice removed from Villa-Lobos. So though the musical world had changed since Villa's death in 1959, there wasn't quite the same reaction to (or rebellion against) the larger-than-life figure who then and now looms so large over Brazil and its music, as there was with older composers in Brazil. When Almeida Prado was offered a commission for the dedication of a new Municipal Planetarium, I'm sure he thought first of As Três Marias. In his preface to the first part of Cartas Celestes, the composer describes his plan:
Galaxies, Constellation of Stars, Nebulae, Shower of Meteors; for all this I created a sound pattern. I coordinated the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet, for each star of the constellation another chord… I intentional chose the piano as medium for this composition; it has a large spectrum of overtones, is capable of quick figurations, its percussive possibilities and its enormous resonances met my intention. Eternity reproduced by music: a ground presumption! But doesn’t music also offer us a magical and eternal universe? Therefore imagination may dare what reason hesitates to do…
For such a large scale work there may be another Villa-Lobos piano piece in the back of Almeida Prado's mind: the massive Rudepoema, written in the early 1920s. But Marlos Nobre, who was four years older, feels that he had a role in the development of Cartas Celestes as well:
If there is a work that redirected the future of Brazilian music, definitely this work is my Concerto Breve. An interesting and historic fact is that while I was still composing the work, I received in my home the young composer José Antonio de Almeida Prado, to whom I played the final movement of my Concerto Breve, with a gush of clusters at the piano.... After hearing all those abundant and violent clusters absolutely predominant in my Concerto Breve, Almeida Prado and all other composers started to write differently from this day on, opening new ways for the music that was being created in Brazil.
This would have been in 1969, before Almeida Prado went to Europe.
Almeida Prado added to the first part of Cartas Celestes in the early 1980s. This new Grand Piano disc by the young Brazilian pianist Aleyson Scopel includes parts 1, 2, 3, and 15 of Cartas Celestes; I trust (and very much hope) that the rest will be released in the near future. Part 15, by the way, was dedicated by the composer to Scopel, and it receives its recording premiere here. Only portions of this music have been recorded before and it's hard to track down the Brazilian recordings. In 2010 Aleyson Scopel released a live recording of Part 1, but it's so great to have this new disc, and the promise of the rest of the series to come. Scopel has the measure of this music in the live recording, but it's especially in the recording studio that he presents the full scale of this music. It's quite an achievement, a tour de force of virtuosity, control, musicianship, and pure stamina. Most importantly, the pianist manages to hint at Almeida Prado's mystical world, what Scopel describes as "colours, light, darkness and an almost mythological understanding and approach to the universe." I hope this disc will bring more attention to both the piano playing of Aleyson Scopel, who seems to have a bright career ahead of him, and to the music of Almeida Prado, who died much too young, but who was one of the most important and original Brazilian composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.