It was not until the late 1940s, when the Italian publisher Ricordi released a collected edition of his instrumental works, that Vivaldi once again became known as an influential composer in his own right. An important step toward Vivaldi’s rehabilitation was a festival organized in 1939 by the Italian composer Alfredo Casella and held in Siena, Italy. It was at this festival that the Gloria (RV 589) received its first performance in over two hundred years. Although Casella reorchestrated, cut and heavily altered the score for “modern performance,” Vivaldi’s musical personality nonetheless won out. In the ensuing decades, the Gloria has become a favorite of choirs worldwide, with more and more performances based on Vivaldi’s original intentions (even if few choirs perform the introductory motets that Vivaldi intended to precede the Gloria).
Although scholars are uncertain when exactly Vivaldi composed the Gloria and a sister piece (RV 588), a rarely performed setting of the same text, most believe that both works were written in the early 18th century for the choir of the Seminario musicale dell’Ospitale della Pietà, a convent in Venice that provide care and education for orphaned girls. For most of his career, Vivaldi was associated with superbly trained female student musicians of the Pietà, for whom he wrote works in virtually every genre.
As composers moved toward expansive settings of the Mass in the 17th century, they further subdivided each section of the Ordinary (i.e. the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei) into separate movements. In line with this trend, Vivaldi divided the Gloria text into twelve highly individualized movements. The first movement, “Gloria in excelsis,” bristles with rhythmic energy as the strings and winds play insistent figures over the chorus’ exclamations. In contrast, Vivaldi subverts the text in the next movement, “Et in terra pax,” as voices enter and exit without satisfactory harmonic resolution. (However, the expressive intensity of the movement may owe less to Vivaldi’s musical imagination than to a setting of the same text by his contemporary Giovanni Maria Ruggieri, which features a similar harmonic plan.)
The unease of the second movement, however, is quickly dispelled by the “carefree ebullience” of the “Laudamus te,” an operatic duet for two sopranos accompanied by violin, viola and continuo. But rather than evoke the opera house again with another movement for solo voice, Vivaldi writes with a “learned” fugue, with its relentless imitations in each voice, to mark the near-midpoint of the Gloria, “Propter magnam gloriam,” which is preceded by the brief “Gratias agimus tibi.”
A pastoral sentiment replaces the grandeur of the fugue in the “Domine Deus,” an aria for soprano and accompanied only by oboe and continuo. The choir returns in “Domine Fili Unigenite,” where an unyielding dotted, or long-short, rhythmic pattern in the strings propels the movement forward. In the next movement, the “Agnus Dei,” Vivaldi evokes the call and answer format of a Catholic service. As a solo alto intones over an organ and continuo, the choir and strings interject homophonically, or together in harmony, in response. The frequency of the choir’s interjections increases, and the solo alto disappears in the brief “Qui tollis,” which is almost entirely homophonic.
Ferocity is the hallmark of the “Qui sedes,” where a solo soprano asks for mercy (“miserere nobis”) over a prickly rhythm in the strings that threatens, yet never overwhelms the soloist. Joy is restored, however, in the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,” featuring virtually the same musical material as the opening movement (“Gloria in excelsis”) over a new text and leading directly into the concluding fugue, “Cum Sancto Spiritu,” which is at turns contemplative, joyful and ultimately triumphant.
- Derek Tam
BCCO Music Director assistant