Ariel Ramírez
Misa Criolla

Born: 4 September 1921 in Santa Fe, Argentina
Died: 18 February 2010 in Monte Grande, Argentina

{Misa Criolla} {Vatican II}

Misa Criolla

The Argentinian composer most music lovers will know today is Alberto Ginastera (1916–1983), especially because of his brilliant ballet Estancia.  Another composer from Argentina whose music is extremely appealing is Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960); I would enthusiastically recommend his stunning Tenebrae (look up the beautiful performance by A Far Cry on YouTube).  And a third Argentinian composer with an international reputation is Ariel Ramírez, creator of more than 300 works.  Trained at the National Conservatory in Buenos Aires as well as in Madrid, Rome, and Vienna, he served as President of the Society of Authors and Composers of the Republic of Argentina (SADAIC) and was also founder of the Compañía de Folklore Ariel Ramírez.  This last was an outgrowth of his lifelong interest in the music of gauchos, creoles and similar groups; he eventually collected and preserved more than 400 folk melodies.

Ramírez’s most popular choral works are his Navidad Nuestra (1964), the Cantata Sudamericana  (1972), the Misa por la paz y la justicia (1980), and especially the Misa Criolla (Creole Mass).  The Misa Criolla was completed in 1964 and is his best-known work in any genre.  It was, in fact, the composition that established his reputation world-wide, and it is the most famous piece of all Latin American choral music.  The original impetus for the Mass was apparently a visit to post-war Germany during which he met women who had, at great personal risk, fed Nazi prisoners to help keep them alive.  This interaction awoke in Ramírez the desire to write something spiritual, and Misa Criolla was the eventual result.

The comments below are based on the score that we are using (Lawson-Gould), but from what I have read, and performances on YouTube, there appear to be multiple versions, and some performances incorporate improvisation and additional repeated sections.

In addition to the SATB choir, the Mass includes solo parts that the score says “may be sung by either male or female voice;” some performances use both or have multiple soloists singing simultaneously.  The instrumentation as given in the Lawson-Gould score is an unusual combination: keyboard (harpsichord or piano), guitar, double bass, and a three-person percussion team playing two bombo argentino drums (a bombo is a double-headed frame drum), two tom-toms, triangle, jingles, small gong, temple woodblocks, and a snare drum with brushes.  I have read that the original instrumentation also included a quena (an Incan flute) and a siku (an Andean pipe), and one can see these instruments in performances (as well as one using accordion).  The Lawson-Gould score unhelpfully provides all the instrumental parts, which means that the choir is usually crammed onto two staves, each page is crowded, and many pages contain only a few measures.  The score is what is required for the conductor, but it is impossible for the instrumentalists (those parts need to be rented), and awkward for the singers.

Each of the five movements of the mass receives a kind of sub-title that identifies a specific folk element used by Ramírez.  The Kyrie, which has a dal segno ABA form, uses the rhythm of the vidala-baguala of northern Argentina.  According to the anonymous notes that accompany the score, “This music...depicts the feeling of loneliness one has living on a deserted high plateau.”  The Gloria uses a different, more joyful rhythm from northern Argentina, the carnavalito, in its opening and closing sections.  These are separated by a strongly contrasting and quite appealing section identified as “Yaraví.”  The Credo is built on a folk theme of central Argentina, the chacerera trunca, while the Sanctus borrows a Bolivian folk rhythm, the carnaval cochabambino.  The choir is reduced to SA only here until the very end.  The very short Agnus Dei is written in the style of the pampas, the estilo pampeano, and this time it is the tenors and basses who provide a humming accompaniment to the solo voice(s) until we all join in for the final plea for peace, “Dánoz la paz.”

The folk elements and the unique instrumentation are unexpected in a Catholic Mass, and also unexpected is the language of the text: Spanish.  This combination is a direct result of Vatican II.

Vatican II

The Misa Criolla could not have been written even ten years earlier.  What made it possible was the Second Vatican Council.  This council, known colloquially as Vatican II, was a gathering of the high clergy of the Catholic Church that lasted from 11 October 1962 to 8 December 1965.  The Catholic Church has convened such councils to discuss ecclesiastical matters on numerous occasions over the centuries, and Vatican II was far from the second one actually held.  A famous one (to music students, at least) was the Council of Trent (1545–1563, though it did not meet continuously during that period), which was the Church’s formal response to the Protestant Reformation and which resulted in several significant changes to musical practice, e.g. substantial trimming of the plainchant repertoire.  Vatican I (8 December 1869 to 20 September 1870) was the first council held after the Council of Trent, and one of its outcomes was condemnation of communism, socialism, anarchism, modernism, liberalism, secularism, and so on (yes, the Catholic Church is conservative).  Vatican I is also famous for generating the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, i.e., everything the Pope says is correct when he speaks ex cathedra and “defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the Universal Church.”  The vote on that doctrine was 533 for, 2 against, and more than 100 abstaining.

Vatican II was the brainchild of Pope John XXIII, whom some (I am among them) consider one of the best pontiffs ever; he was certainly one of the most unlikely.  The papal conclave after the death on 9 October 1958 of John’s predecessor, Pius XII, was a complicated one since Pius XII had been pope for almost 20 years and his tenure, which covered all of World War II, was controversial.  He was also not possessed of a winning personality.  It wasn’t clear who would be his successor, but the group of those considered “papabile” (popeable—isn’t that a great word?) did not include Cardinal Angelo Giuseppe Roncali of Venice.  For one thing, the guy was too old, almost 77.  But his age was ultimately a factor in his election, since he was a compromise candidate and everyone figured he would die soon anyway.  Besides, they were on the 12th ballot by the time he was elected, and it’s not a great sign when the cardinals can’t agree.  The Holy Spirit is supposed to guide them, after all, and if there are many ballots it makes it seem like God can’t make up his mind.

A brief aside to put the pope in perspective: Christianity is the most widely practiced religion in the world, encompassing almost one-third of the Earth’s population (Islam is second, with about a quarter of the world; next in line is ‘‘not religious” at 15%).  Within Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church is by far the largest denomination.  Thus, election of the pope is a big deal (he’s “infallible,” after all) since he is religious leader for more people in the world than anyone else.  And he’s supposed to be a voice of morality and principle for everyone, although not all popes live up to that responsibility.

Back to Roncalli/John XXIII.  Earlier in his career he had been papal delegate to Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece, places where Catholics were a minority, so he was used to interacting with those of other faiths.  During World War II he worked with the Jewish underground to get thousands of refugees safely out of Europe.  In 1944 he was appointed Apostolic Nuncio to Paris, where he arranged for the retirement of bishops who had collaborated with the Nazis.  Afterwards he was assigned to Venice; I like to think of that as a reward for his good work, because who wouldn’t want to live in Venice?  So, not the usual background for a pope.  He certainly didn’t expect to be elected—he had a return train ticket.

Once he became pope, he also didn’t behave as expected.  He used to sneak out of the Vatican at night to walk the streets of Rome, earning the nickname “Johnnie Walker” among the Vatican aides.  The pope is, technically, the Bishop of Rome, but John XXIII was the first pope since 1870 to visit the imprisoned and those in Roman hospitals, saying simply, “you could not come to me, so I came to you.”  He also had a sense of humor.  When asked “how many people work in the Vatican?” he replied “about half.”

But of course his biggest contribution was Vatican II.  Because he died in 1963 he did not see it to conclusion, but the results bore the mark of his influence everywhere.  A driving idea behind the Council was the similarity of religions rather than their differences, and a major outcome was the official position of the Church that (contrary to so many of the Church’s earlier statements) (1) Jews were not to blame for Christ’s death; (2) Jews were not a people cursed by God; and (3) Catholic anti-semitism should be rejected in the strongest possible terms.

Major changes took place in the Mass itself.  In contrast to earlier practice, the priest now faced the congregation rather than turning his back to them.  Far more significant was the shift in the language used for the service.  Rather than Latin, the liturgy was now to unfold in the language of the people—Italian in Italy, German in Germany, and so on (monastic communities continued to use Latin).  And the congregation was now to participate in music-making, which meant bye-bye Gregorian chant, hello Protestant hymns.  These last two changes—service in the language of the people, and congregational music making—were, of course, exactly what Martin Luther had put in practice as the Reformation got underway almost 450 years previously.

Not everyone was happy with these changes.  For some, the mystery and power of the Latin mass was lost with the shift to the vernacular, and they left the church permanently.  Others loathed the perceived attempt to be relevant that introduced so-called “guitar” masses (e.g., teenagers playing “Michael row the boat ashore” for the congregation; I’ve been told that these abominations are still going on in some places).  And it is certainly true that the Catholic Church, which has the greatest and richest musical tradition and repertoire of any religion, has been a very poor steward of its sonic legacy.  But the changes of Vatican II also made possible the Misa Criolla and similar works such as the attractive Caribbean Mass by Glenn McClure.  In an ideal world, or at least in the most musical churches, the Sunday service would include masses by composers such as Palestrina and Haydn and Schubert as well as the Misa Criolla.  We can be grateful that “secular” choirs have stepped into the breech and are keeping these masses alive.

June 2024