Although Vivaldi did compose a substantial body of sacred music, it was never his main interest. The host of pioneering concertos he wrote – for the Ospedale della Pietà, the famous Venice orphanage for girls and women, and then for wealthy music lovers throughout Europe – formed his day job, as it were, and opera was his chief distraction from it. But on at least two occasions the post of chorus master at the Pietà fell vacant for an extended period, and Vivaldi stepped in to supply music for the chorus.
One of these periods came in the years 1713-1719, and Vivaldi worked prodigiously to fill the musical void. In June 1715 the board of the Pietà voted to award Vivaldi the chorus master’s annual bonus for “his excellent musical compositions… a complete Mass, a Vespers, an oratorio, over 30 motets, and other labors” and to “stimulate him to make further contributions and to perfect still more the performing abilities of the girls of this our chorus.”
This Gloria was undoubtedly one of the works of this period. More controversially, scholarly opinion now holds that all the vocal parts were sung by the women’s chorus of the institution and at pitch (i.e. without male tenors or basses and without transposing those parts up an octave, at least not consistently).
The scoring and style is quite characteristic of Vivaldi’s other music for the Pietà, including the better-known concertos. This means ebullient and joyful music such as the opening chorus, with its distinctive solo oboe and trumpet, and deeply expressive slower music, such as the following movement, with its chromatic polyphony and suspensions over a steadily pulsing bass line.
There are several movements with vocal solos, which would have been sung by members of the chorus. “Laudamus te” is a duet for two sopranos, set up like a concerto movement with instrumental ritornellos between the passages for the intertwined singers. “Domine Deus” is a sweetly rocking Siciliano pairing soprano and oboe, and “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei,” with its combination of soloist and chorus, apparently caused Vivaldi the most trouble, at least on manuscript evidence. “Qui sedes” is another concerto-like movement, of the fiery finale type.
For the actual finale, Vivaldi created a vividly effective and very efficient composite. The brief “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” picks up his celebratory opening music, serving mainly to set up the concluding double fugue on “Cum Sancto Spiritu.” Unlike Haydn, Vivaldi was not highly skilled in strict counterpoint, and for this fugue he appropriated the conclusion of a recent Gloria by Veronese composer Giovanni Maria Ruggieri. Vivaldi “borrowed” music more frequently than was once thought, and every bit as creatively as Handel did more famously. Superbly apt in this case, it hardly needs apology or explanation.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.