This year marks the 50th anniversary of a landmark composition of sacred music, the Misa Criolla by iconic Argentine pianist and composer Ariel Ramirez (1921-2010), one of the leading figures of Argentine nativism.

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Ramirez wrote the work shortly after the Second Vatican Council permitted the celebration of the Roman Catholic Mass in the vernacular. It is one of the first Masses to be composed in a modern language after Vatican Council II.

The Washington Post described it as a “stunning artistic achievement [that] combined Spanish text with indigenous instruments and rhythms…..A reverent carnival.”

But the inspiration for it was anything but merry; the idea for it took root after a visit to Germany after the Holocaust. There Ramirez had an encounter with a group of nuns, which led him to think of writing “a spiritual piece.” He told the Jerusalem Post in an interview, “I felt that I had to compose something deep and religious that would revere life and involve people beyond their creeds, race, color or origin”. In another interview he added it was a tribute to human dignity, courage and freedom, with a distinct message of “Christian love.”

The Misa Criolla is scored for male or female soloists, chorus and orchestra, and is based on several folk idioms and genres: the chacarera, carnavalito and estilo pampeano, with Andean influences and instruments.

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It still retains the structure of the Mass, with the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei.

Misa Criolla catapulted Ramirez into international renown. His compositions exceed 300, and his album sales have been in the millions. His music has been sung by giants of classical and folk music: Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, Alfredo Kraus, George Dalaras, Pasión Vega, Mercedes Sosa, Violeta Parra, Avishai Cohen, as well as popular singers including Shakira, Ane Brun, Miguel Bosé, Andrés Calamaro, and Paloma San Basilio. Plácido Domingo recorded the Kyrie (the first movement of the Misa Criolla) with Dominic Miller on guitar in 2003.

Ariel Ramirez was born in Santa Fe, Argentina in 1921. His father’s fond hopes that Ariel would follow in his footsteps as a teacher were rudely dashed when he quit his job after just two days due to “discipline problems.” He first studied tango and then Argentine folklore, captivated especially by the music of the gauchos and creoles. Folksinger and songwriter Atahualpa Yupanqui became a huge influence.

Between 1950 and 1954, he studied classical music in various European centres (Vienna, Rome, Madrid) before returning to his homeland where collected more than 400 folk, country and popular songs, and created the Compañía de Folklore Ariel Ramírez.

The composition of his Misa Criolla seemed to open the floodgates of Ramirez’s creativity, and several landmark works followed in quick succession: Navidad Nuestra (1964), La Peregrinación (1964);Los Caudillos (1965); Mujeres Argentinas (1969), Alfonsina y el Mar (1969), and Cantata Sudamericana (1972), all produced in collaboration with Argentine writer, diplomat and lyricist Félix Luna.

Mujeres Argentias (Argentine Women) and Cantata Sudamericana (South American Cantata) became huge hits, sung by Argentine folk singer Mercedes Sosa.

Alfonsina y el Mar is particularly popular in the Spanish-speaking world. It pays tribute to the poet Alfonsina Stosi, recalling her suicide in 1938 at La Perla beach in Mar del Plata, south of Buenos Aires, and her farewell poem I Am Going To Sleep.

In an interview to the New York Times, Ramirez revealed that “pressure from the church, my friends and the public” persuaded him in 1980 to write yet another Mass, and in the same vein. It was called “Misa por La Paz y La Justicia” (Mass for Peace and Justice) with liturgical texts by Luna and Osvaldo Catena. He considered it even more ambitious, “compositionally and morally”, than the Misa Criolla.

“I believe this combination makes us ponder the meanings of the words ‘peace’ and ‘justice’ — peace as the only way to live together and justice as a binding between the people of the world. Without this peace and justice, it would be impossible to compose, paint, write and enjoy all the gifts God has given us in life to share with our children and friends.”

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The 50th anniversary of Misa Criolla is being celebrated across the world. Cantapueblo, an organization created in 1989 to promote friendships between peoples of the world through choral singing, will receive choirs from around the world in November this year in Mendoza, Argentina. 1500 voices will sing the work at the closing concert of this year’s festival, joined by the Mendoza Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Damian Sanchez.

(An edited version of this article was published on 4 May 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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