Monday, 17 May 2010

Ariel Ramírez 1921-2010

In music, timing is all: and it was the great fortune of Ariel Ramírez to reach his maturity as a composer at the time of the Second Vatican Council. The Argentinian piano virtuoso, classically trained but enchanted by the diverse folk traditions of his own land, harboured a desire to express his Catholic faith through the vernacular music of Latin America. The reforming Pope Paul VI, who sponsored the translation of the liturgy from Latin into the native tongues of the faithful, gave his personal blessing to Ramírez’s masterpiece, the Misa criolla or Creole Mass (1964).
The artist won global renown with this revolutionary work, graced by such voices as Mercedes Sosa, José Carreras or the Royal Choral Society of London. It expresses passages like the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Sanctus or the Agnus Dei in a variety of musical idioms, from vidala-baguala to carnavalito, zamba and chacarera, largely unheard outside Latin America’s Southern Cone, and deploying native instruments like the charango and bandoneón.
Although Misa criolla won platinum discs worldwide, published in more than 40 countries and recorded in many languages, its author preferred some of his later compositions. With over 300 works to his name, interpreted by artists like Montserrat Caballé, Plácido Domingo or even Benny Goodman, he leaves a huge mark on the continent’s musical landscape – especially as a pioneer of the piano as a protagonist, rather than a backing instrument, in the folk repertoire.
Born in the central city of Santa Fé, Ramírez was encouraged in his musical studies by his parents, Rosa Blanca Servetti and Zenón Ramírez, the latter a schoolteacher and writer. At the age of 20, he had a life-changing encounter with the legendary folksinger Atahualpa Yupanqui (1908-1992), who sponsored him on a tour of musical discovery through the country’s north-western provinces.
Settling in Buenos Aires, Ramírez recorded a series of 21 double albums for RCA Victor between 1946 and 1961, when he defected to Philips. Basing himself in Rome for four years, he toured extensively in Europe, including broadcasts for the BBC and recitals in Cambridge and at the Wigmore Hall.
It was aboard a ship from Liverpool to Buenos Aires, Ramírez later recalled, that he conceived of the pressing need for a major work of religious art using the native rhythms of his homeland. A childhood friend, Fr Antonio Osvaldo Catena, came to his aid. Chairing the episcopal commission in charge of translating the Mass for Latin America, Catena proved indispensable in the long gestation of the Misa criolla.
In 1955, Ramírez founded and gave his name to a folklore company that played most of the major cities of South America. At the height of the Cold War, he led it on visits to the Soviet Union, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Cinema soundtracks provided another outlet for his growing body of work, blending original compositions with arrangements of traditional airs.
Mercedes Sosa was the inspired choice as soloist when the Misa criolla was unveiled at Christmas, 1965. The work was toured through Europe in 1967 and 1974; recorded in a fresh version with Carreras in 1987; and brought to new audiences in Spain, Britain, Japan and Germany throughout the 1990s. It made its London debut in 1995, chosen for the Royal Choral Society’s 125th anniversary concert at the Festival Hall.
Meanwhile, Ramírez worked on a series of song cycles, notably Los caudillos, Mujeres argentinas and Cantata sudamericana, often collaborating with his favourite lyricist, Félix Luna, who had helped construct the Misa criolla. In 1981, he released a new religious work, the Misa por la paz y la justicia, which he regarded as his finest hour.
He contributed notably to the development of music in the Argentinian school system and to the promotion of open-air concerts to celebrate the country’s rich variety of musical genres.
Ramírez was also noted as a champion of copyright, spurred into action after one of his own works was pirated into the French charts. He sued successfully and launched the society that protects the rights of authors and composers in Argentina, chairing it for five terms and presiding the international authors’ rights confederation.
The artist retired in 2004 and succumbed to pneumonia after a decade of decline, afflicted by Alzheimer’s but still practising daily on the piano. Like Mercedes Sosa, whose thrilling voice fell silent last October, Ramírez was honoured with a lying-in-state in the Buenos Aires parliament. His wife for more than half a century, Inés, survives him with daughters Laura and Mariana, son Facundo – a noted pianist and singer – two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
  • Ariel Ramírez Servetti, pianist and composer, born 4 September 1921; died 18 February 2010

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