One significant change in the liturgy occurs at the end of Lent, at the Easter Vigil: the inclusion of the ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ (Glory to God in the highest).

It is known as the Greater Doxology (from the Greek doxa “glory” and logia “saying”) and is a hymn of praise to God, important in both, the Byzantine rite used by the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, and the Roman rite used by the Roman Catholic Church.

Today, it is sung or recited in the Mass, after the Kyrie eleison (Lord have Mercy) and before the Credo (I believe), on Sundays outside of Lent and Advent, and on solemnities and feasts. It is omitted on days of sorrow and penitence, and a mass for the dead. In the past, only bishops had the privilege of using the hymn in Mass, and history records its extended use by priests in general towards the end of the 11th century.

Gloria Vivaldi

It is also called the ‘angelic hymn’ because its opening lines “Gloria in excelsis Deo; Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis” (Glory to God in the highest; And on earth peace to men of good will) are the words the angels sang when the birth of Jesus was proclaimed to shepherds in Luke 2:14. The complete text is believed to date from probably the 4th century AD.

The Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus (Holy) and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) together form the Ordinary of the Mass.

Italian Baroque composer Antonio Lucio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote at least three settings of the hymn ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’, of which only two survive: RV 588 and 589. RV 590 is deemed as lost. RV stands for Ryom Verzeichnis, the catalogue of Vivaldi’s works by Danish musicologist Peter Ryom.

RV 589 is the more famous and more commonly performed version. Like its RV 588 sibling, it has 12 movements, each devoted to a relevant line in the hymn. Last Wednesday, Child’s Play adult community choir led by Nicholas Manlove, our volunteer from the United States, sang the first movement from it, with a six-member string ensemble which included two of our children, the brothers Irfan and Salim Shimpigar. It was a fitting composition for Child’s Play India Foundation, a Sistema-inspired music charity, to perform. Why? Read on.

Although written for four-part polyphonic choir, the Vivaldi Gloria is thought to have been initially sung by an all-female choir. Both the surviving versions RV 588 and 589 are believed to have been written in 1715, when Vivaldi was employed at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, a convent, orphanage and music school in Venice.

The Pietà as it was known was a haven for orphans and abandoned girls, especially those left in their care as babies. Like other Venetian ospedali, it gained renown for performances of sacred music by its figlie di coro. La Pietà also had a formidable orchestra of up to sixty players, all female. Inevitably, it became a hub of creativity, with composers writing music specifically for them. Vivaldi (who had been ordained as a Catholic priest and was nicknamed ‘The Red Priest’ for his ginger hair) wrote much of his sacred vocal and instrumental music for the forces available to him at the Pietà.

And he was not the only one. Over a dozen other composers also held posts there as Maestri di Coro at various points in its history.

In addition, the Pietà’s staff of copyists and printers did much to further the cause of music in the city. Vivaldi certainly used their services a lot. The Ospedale also provided him employment and a salary as a violin teacher and chorus master during his tenure there (1703-1715 and 1723-1740).

We speak of ‘social empowerment through music education’ as if it were a modern construct. El Sistema, the music education program that began in the 1970s ‘that rescues children from the depredations of poverty through music’ is justly called a revolution, almost a miracle in achieving this objective. But the Pietà and other Ospedali like it were in effect doing just this, centuries earlier.

The Ospedale della Pietà alone produced at least five composers that we know of, all female, and three of them foundlings. They wrote in a distinctive ‘Pietà style’ of composition.

Those among the other foundlings who went on to become musicians and singers attained a degree of respectability that society might perhaps not have accorded them had they not been brought here. It is worthwhile noting that only girls in the orphanage were taught music, as boys could be trained for livelihoods in commerce and shipping. This was unusual in a society that generally frowned upon professional female musicians.

The female musicians and singers performed for audiences but concealed from their “profane” gaze by a black gauze “transparent enough to show the figures of women, but not in the least their features and complexion.” Left to the imagination, they became even more heavenly to visitors such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who called them “angels of beauty”. He in frustration sought special permission to see them, only to have his illusion shattered, but “as long as they were singing, I persisted in thinking them beautiful, in spite of my eyes.”

The divine, angelic qualities of their music are perhaps best exemplified by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s ‘Triumph of Faith’ painted at the Pietà, portraying choirs of angels descending from heaven to earth.

It is due to the talent of these women that composers like Vivaldi were able to write music in larger forms that developed the modern orchestra, thus contributing to music history. Some of Vivaldi’s violin concerti (e.g. RV 343) showcase the virtuosity of one of the Pietà violinists Ana Maria della Pietà, who went on to become a composer as well.

The Ospedali became the templates for future music institutions in Italy and beyond. The Royal Academy of Music London (1822) was the first English music school that solely trained both boys and girls to be professional musicians. Felix Mendelssohn who in 1843 founded the Leipzig Conservatory was influenced by his teacher Carl Zelter who had begun a school modelled upon the Ospedali.

The evolution of music, the pursuit of musical excellence, music education and pedagogy, and charity, philanthropy and social empowerment have been closely intertwined through history. Long may this continue!

(An edited version of this article was published on 27 March 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)