Gloria, RV 589
2 sopranos, alto, mixed chorus, oboe, trumpet, strings, continuo
II. Et in terra pax
III. Laudamus te
IV. Gratias agimus tibi
V. Propter magnam gloriam
VI. Domine Deus
VII. Domine, Fili unigenite
VIII. Domine Deus, Agnus Dei
IX. Qui tollis peccata mundi
X. Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris
XI. Quoniam tu solus sanctus
XII. Cum Sancto Spiritu
Among all the areas of human experience and endeavor, religion has perhaps inspired the greatest works of art. Whether it takes shape in the arabesques and mosaics of the Great Mosque of Damascus or the intricate calligraphy and illuminated details in sacred books, spirituality has motivated countless artists. Music, especially, plays a prominent role in religious imagination, from the hymns of ancient Greece, to the cantorial traditions of Judaism and Islam, to the continuing attempts by composers to capture the “songs of heaven” in earthly music. In composing music for two of the oldest Christian liturgical texts—the Gloria and the Magnificat—Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach stepped onto a well-worn path. While each work bears the unique imprint of its creator, they also share many elements of style and are connected, in their inspiration, to the whole world of sacred art.
Vivaldi was not the first Italian composer to bring operatic recitatives and arias into the music of the Catholic Church, but his Gloria is proof of the expressive powers that opera could lend to religious experience. The text of the Gloria begins by quoting one of the more theatrical passages of the Bible, from the story of the Nativity in the Gospel of Luke, in which an angel announces Christ’s birth to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will” (ii.14). Vivaldi’s decision to open his Gloria with a bold statement from the orchestra, resounding with bravura octave leaps and illuminated by the brilliance of trumpet and oboe, conjures the overwhelming sound of the “heavenly host.” Following in the same vein, the choir projects a wall of sound, each voice magnifying the others while preserving the clarity of the angel’s words. We suddenly understand why the shepherds were compelled. The second half of the phrase, however, provides an oddly somber contrast to the jubilant opening. Steadily descending lines in the strings, over a throbbing basso continuo accompaniment, usher in a series of stranger harmonies for “et in terra pax.” As the choral voices overlap one another, we hear occasional twinges of dissonance, as if we are already lamenting, in the midst of this celebratory first section, the cost to be paid for peace on earth.
The second section of the Gloria contemplates the significance of God’s incarnation in the figure of his son, which Vivaldi explores through three different dances. In this way, the music embodies the humanity of Jesus, beginning with the aria for soprano, “Domine Deus,” which is cast as a gentle loure. The oboe solo that wends its way alongside the soprano helps convey the pastoral character of this slow jig. The following chorus, “Domine Fili unigenite,” accompanied by French-style dotted rhythms in the basso continuo, alternates between the character of a courtly minuet and the earthy sarabande. Finally, the alto aria, “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei,” turns serious with a passacaglia over a repeating bass line. The musical vision has shifted from Christ as shepherd, to Christ as Lord, to Christ as sacrifice, and so the chorus interjects in this third aria with pleas for forgiveness. Eventually, the alto yields to the chorus—“Qui tollis peccata mundi”—before returning to plead once more with her final “miserere nobis.” As if to answer the alto’s prayer, the boisterous music of the beginning returns for the chorus “Quoniam tu solus sanctus.” Here Vivaldi is affirming the role of Christ as redeemer before the choral “Cum Sancto spiritu” brings the Gloria to a close by invoking the Holy Spirit and completing the Trinity. Vivaldi reserves the most intense counterpoint for this final section, with the voices twining around one another, reaching higher and higher. Interludes for oboe and trumpet shine through like rays of light, illuminating the path toward salvation. Because of his post at the orphanage of the church of Santa Maria della Pietà, listeners to Vivaldi’s own orchestra and choir would have heard (but not seen) this music emanating from young women and girls, fittingly described by all who heard them as “angelic.”
Sparks will fly with the joy, energy, and diversity of American music. Enjoy favorites from William Grant Still, Aaron Copland, and Joan Tower. Experience the Coltrane-inspired virtuosity of John Adams’ spirited Saxophone Concerto.