Last Friday, the famous Argentinian composer and pianist Ariel Ramirez passed away at 88. Ramirez, who was inspired by the great folk singer Atahualpa Yupanqui, is best known for his Misa Criolla. Ramirez was inspired to write that Mass during the 1950s when he was still unknown and was staying at a convent in Würzburg, Germany. There he met two nuns, Elizabeth and Regina Brückner, who told him that during the war there had been a concentration camp next to their convent. They told their young musician guest that they would slip food to the Jewish prisoners at night at great risk to their own lives. Said Ramirez: "After my dear hosts finished their story, I felt that I had to write a work, something profound, religious, which would honor life, which would involve all people beyond their beliefs, race, color or origin. Something that would be about man, his dignity, courage, freedom, about man's relationship with God, his Creator." Ramirez would eventually dedicate the Misa Criolla to the Brückner sisters.
Back in Buenos Aires, in the early 1960s, Ramirez turned the idea over with his friend Fr. Antonio Osvaldo Catena who, at that time, was liturgical consultant to CELAM. The Vatican had just started to encourage the celebration of Mass in the vernacular and the two used the Spanish text of the Mass that had been approved in 1963. Ramirez set the words to the rhythms and musical forms of his native continent such as the baguala, the vidala, the carnavalito, and the chacarera. Another priest, Fr. Jesús Gabriel Segade, developed the choral arrangements. The Misa Criolla was one of the first choral Masses to be composed in a modern language.
In 1964, Ramirez first recorded the Misa Criolla with the folk group Los Fronterizos. On the B side of the album was another religious composition by Ramirez, Navidad Nuestra, a cantata reflection on the birth of Christ which combined lyrics by Felix Luna with traditional folk settings: The Annunciation (chamamé), The Pilgrimage (huella pampeana), The Birth (vidala catamarqueña), The Shepherds (chaya riojana), The Three Kings (takirari), and The Flight To Egypt (vidala tucumana). The lyrics to both works can be found here.
Many other famous artists have since performed the Misa Criolla, including Spanish tenor José Carreras in 1987, the Peruvian diva Chabuca Granda, and Mercedes Sosa, whose 2000 recording of the work earned a Latin Grammy. The work received its first public performance in 1967 in Düsseldorf, Germany, during a European tour which eventually brought Ramírez to meet Pope Paul VI.
In 1980, Ariel Ramirez wrote another Mass in collaboration with Fr. Osvaldo Catena, Misa por la Paz y la Justicia. According to the composer, the inspiration came during a religious performance of the Misa Criolla in 1979 when the presider, Fr. Rafael Braun, prayed aloud to God for Ramirez to write another Mass, one devoted to peace and justice. The composer tried to reflect the Church's two thousand years of teaching these two gospel values.
"When I read the newspapers and see what is happening in the world, I am horrified as a man. It is the same pain I feel in my country for what we have lived through. I think that, as an artist, one should make a contribution so that it is not repeated, either here or anywhere else, and that is how the idea of setting the message to music came about...As an Argentinian artist I have the commitment to leave a Christian message of peace along with all my other work. And I hope that the intent of this message will be interpreted. I am not calling for peace with shouts or hate, but with love...Perhaps I can be a grain of sand for peace and justice in the world."
"In the Mass for Peace and Justice two important aspects must be considered. One, the artistic side and the other, the moral one which makes us reflect deeply on the meaning of the words peace and justice: peace as the only means of coexistence and justice as the vehicle to unite people all over the world...Without this peace and justice it would be impossible to paint, compose, write and enjoy all the gifts God has given us in life to share with our children and our friends."
As it is Lent, we will leave you with Mercedes Sosa singing the "Kyrie" from the Misa Criolla:
Photos: Ariel Ramirez; Ariel Ramirez's funeral, Ariel Ramirez (at piano) with singer Mercedes Sosa and poet Felix Luna.