As Tres Marias: Orion's Belt

The latest CD in Sonia Rubinsky's series of music for piano by Villa-Lobos, volume 6, contains a beautiful performance of a work from 1939: As Tres Marias.  These three brittle miniatures - none longer than two minutes - are character studies of three individual "types", with a surprisingly avante-garde purpose built in

Pictured to the right is the constellation Orion, taken from the Wikipedia article.  "The Three Marias" make up Orion's belt: they were originally named by Arabic astronomers:

"Alnitak ζ Ori is a star in the constellation Orion. It is the lowest of the prominent three stars [Other two:ε Ori (Alnilam), δ Ori (Mintaka)], which form a straight line, commonly known as the Orion Belt. The names Alnitak, Mintaka and Alnilam originate from Arabic."

The three star names become the three movements:

  1. Alnitak
  2. Alnilam
  3. Mintaka

The story behind the work is that the three girls named Mary who were inseparable in life were transformed into the three stars after their death. 

In Daniel Albright's introduction to John Cage's 1961 "Fragments of Silence" (in his book Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources), he talks about the first method Cage has for "...achieving a lapse of compositional control, a state of egolessness in music:"

 Orion's Belt: the three Marias

"1. Chance procedures, in which such variables as pitch, rhythm, volume and determined by some generator of randomness, such as casts of dice, imperfections in music paper, star charts, or the I Ching (Book of Changes).  Others had made some use of these procedures: for example, in 1913 Marcel Duchamp had drawn from a hat pieces of paper with notes written [on] them, and in 1939 Heitor Villa-Lobos had based his piano piece As tres Marias on the pattern of stars in the constellation Orion.  But Duchamp's experiment had few repercussions in the world of music, and Villa-Lobos subjected his stars to more or less orthodox harmonizations.  Cage was the first composer to make chance exciting."



The new Rubinsky disc contains two other Villa-Lobos experiments in "ego-less composition", though that is surely an oxymoron, when you consider Villa's significant self-esteem.  The first is a piano piece also from 1939, called New York Skyline Melody.  The second is called Melodia de Montanha.  Here is a description of VL's method of composing these two works, from the excellent liner notes by James Melo:

Albright, Daniel, editor Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources. Edited and with Commentary by Daniel Albright . 440 p., 19 halftones. 6-5/8 x 9-3/8.  University of Chicago Press, 2003.  p. 189.


 "New York Skyline Melody (1939) and Melodia da montanha (Mountain Melody; date of composition uncertain, but published in 1942) originated from the same principle: in both cases, Villa-Lobos used a diagram of the contour of a particular horizon (New York's buildings and the peaks of the Serra da Piedade in Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais, respectively) as a source of inspiration. The contour of the horizon served as a guide for deciding on the pitches out of which the melodies were built. This approach was unique in Villa-Lobos's creative process, and in following this course he emulated techniques employed by Edgard Varèse in some of his avant-garde experiments. In the case of New York Skyline Melody, Villa-Lobos created a work of haunting and stark beauty, reminiscent of the majestic grandeur of the city. It is very likely that the Melodia da montanha (which receives here its world première recording) was composed before, and its accompaniment figure later used in the more elaborate, structurally more mature New York Skyline Melody."


Though Villa-Lobos began in the 1920s as a truly modernist composer, by the 1940s his harmonic language seemed more than a little old-fashioned.  So even though he was very close with Edgard Varese, and he was very much admired by Messiaen, his avant-garde credibility isn't very strong today.  I do believe, though, that he should get more credit for these interesting experiments.

[Picture to the right: two modernists in Paris - Villa & Varese in 1926]

 Villa & Varese, 1926
I've really enjoyed listening to the new Rubinsky CD.  Though Amazon doesn't release the disk until October 30, 2007, you can pre-order it there any time.  Or do what I do, and listen online through the Naxos Music Library.  You can subscribe as an individual, but many public libraries subscribe on behalf of their customers.  I know mine does.