1972, 50' Chorus and orchestra/ensemble
Solo voices: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass | Chorus: 5 SSAATTBB
Orchestration: 4(2afl)+6rec.4(2obda)0.0 | 220.127.116.11 | timp.perc | amp ch org.amp hpd.gorg | str (18.104.22.168.2).tape
Languages: Spanish, 50 others
'Dark Night of the Soul' is probably more familiar to modern ears as a turn of phrase than as the title of a poem, and certainly more so than the name of its author, the 16th-century Spanish mystic and priest, St John of the Cross. This and others of his works are set throughout Ultimos Ritos (Sp. ‘last rites’), which consists of five movements composed over three years.
Ultimos Ritos began with Coplas, the final movement, its genesis an incident the composer believed could not be explained by anything so random as chance: switching on the radio while driving, he heard the final cadence of Bach’s Crucifixus from the Mass in B Minor, and instantly was resolved to write a work based on these chords. While the entirety of Ultimos Ritos hinges on this idea, it does not make itself explicit until the close of the final movement, as the Bach gradually subsumes Tavener’s own invention, swallowing it with the words, ‘et sepultus est’ — ‘and was buried.’
Ultimos Ritos is about the crucifixion and burial of the self. St John of the Cross was a Carmelite, one of three to whom Tavener dedicated works. Traditionally among this order, when a person is called to Christ he or she must ‘come and die’ to themselves and to the world, in order to achieve true spiritual unity. Ultimos Ritos explores this concept through the poetry, much of which angles material from secular love songs metaphorically, to reveal a metaphysical interpretation in which the lover, or soul, seeks the beloved: God; through its staging, which represents the crucifix in its layout of the choirs; and through the music itself, also intended to proportionally reflect the crucifix, and moreover to mirror the ardent willingness of the poet who wrote, ‘One day he climbed a tree and spread his arms so wide, his heart an open wound with love.’ Tavener said that at the point of his introduction to Roman Catholicism he had ‘begun to think that liturgy as drama and drama as liturgy were the only means of expression.’ Ultimos Ritos is the apotheosis of this notion.
Tavener described Ultimos Ritos as very dramatic — and very Roman Catholic — in its violent exaltation of the Crucifixion. While he respected the work as an early example of consciously metaphysical composition, within a few years of its premiere he had realised that neither the West- ern Church nor Western music could offer the balance of tradition he sought. Had he set the Crucifixion later in his life, Tavener would have written a quite different work.