Ultimos Ritos was composed over a period of three years. It was commissioned by Mario di Bonaventura for the Hopkins Center, Dartmouth College, Hanover, USA, while Movement III, El Nomen del Christo was commissioned in its original version, Nomine Jesu, by the Dartington Summer School of Music, 1970, and Movement V, Coplas, by the Cheltenham Festival, 1970. Ultimos Ritos is written in honour of the Sixteenth Century Spanish Mystic, St John of the Cross.
It was first performed by the BBC Singers and the Dutch Radio Orchestra, conducted by John Poole, as part of the Holland Festival 1974. This performance was recorded by the BBC, and subsequently broadcast simultaneously on radio and television.
Ultimos Ritos, Requiem for Father Malachy Lynch and the opera Therese are all dedicated to Great Carmelites. All three of these works are concerned with 'dying' or 'death'. Ultimos Ritos is about the mystical concept of 'dying to oneself'. When Christ calls men, he bids them 'come and die'. This then is the philosophical thought behind both the opera and Ultimos Ritos. The musical structure and the musical symbolism in Ultimos Ritos are very rigorous. The proportions of the work are those of a cross, and so is the layout of the choirs and some of the instruments. So, architecturally speaking, movement one is the lower half of the cross, movement two is the head, movement three is the man on the cross, movement four is one arm and movement five the other arm - Palindromic. I have tried to express this 'dying to oneself' by a simple musical idea. The entire work is based on material from the Crucifixus from Bach's B minor Mass. This does not become truly recognisable until the last movement, and here the Bach subdues 'my music', and eventually 'buries it'. The last words are in 'et sepultus est'.
The opening fortissimo chord represents 'Christ crucified'. The text of St John of the Cross sung by two of the choirs is musically based on a Sixteenth Century Spanish love song, and this is superimposed with sharp interjections from the other choirs representing the hammering of nails. The syllables sung by these choirs are in fact 'Crucifixus pro nobis… et sepultus est' sung backwards. The centre point of the movement is another, but slightly altered statement of the 'crucified' chord. The second half is more still in character, with all four choirs singing together. The seven interruptions from the recorders and tabor, are more recognisable presentations of the Spanish love song. The movement ends with the opening chord, quiet, and pulsing.
The second movement is more primitive. Like the first movement it falls into two distinct sections. In the first half twelve basses move into a circle and begin chanting the Spanish words about the eternal spring, which for Christians is hidden in the Eucharist; trumpet fanfares from the gallery cut across the texture seven times. The second half of the movement is in fourteen sections and alternates timpani at the four corners of the building, with trumpets and recorders in the gallery answering trumpets and flutes on the ground. This represents the descent of the Eucharist, trumpets being the instruments of royalty and flutes the instruments of love. In this section the Bach harmonies become perceptible with the predominance of the E minor triad, leading to the next movement.
The third movement is static - one chord, one name, Jesus. The soprano solo sings melismas on the holy name, while five priests in five different languages declaim passages from the Scriptures. The exact architectural centre of Ultimos Ritos is marked by the ringing of a bell, three times, and the five priests reading in Spanish the words spoken by Christ at the Last Supper. The movement continues with a primitive but ecstatic celebration of the name Jesus in about fifty different languages, and closes with verses from 'Songs of the soul in rapture'.
The fourth movement is purely instrumental, and is more introverted in feeling than the previous two movements. The four bar ostinato figure of the Bach Crucifixus is marked out here by the hand-bells, flutes and oboes, and this will become the Crucifixus in the next movement.
The fifth and last movement is the apotheosis of the whole work. The orchestra is silent, and the Bach (on tape) gradually flowers and brings the work to an end.
Ultimos Ritos is written for four flutes, six recorders, four oboes, four horns, ten trumpets, four trombones, four sets of timpani, four tam-tams, bells, harpsichord, chamber organ, grand organ, strings, four choirs, SATB soloists and tape.