Myths and Facts about the Offertory: Part 1

One of the greatest delights of the current moment in the Roman liturgical year is the often spectacular set of Offertories sung in these late Sundays after Pentecost. Lamentably, the faithful to-day are almost everywhere deprived of the chance to hear these Roman offertories in their full ancient form. The magnificent verses that originally accompanied the Offertory respond fell out of use during the 12th and 13th centuries, and hence were not included in the Tridentine books. The amputation of these verses, especially those of several post-Pentecostal dominical Offertories, constitutes a real impoverishment of the Western liturgical patrimony.

The liturgical reformers of the 20th century might have been expected to show some interest in restoring the full ancient Offertories, especially given that several of them encouraged the restoration of the practice of singing additional psalm verses with the Introit and Communion antiphons, as many as the length of the ceremonies might require. The melismatic Offertory verses, however, mostly languished in neglect.

In 1935, Karl Ott published an Offertoriale with the additional verses, hoping that they would once again be sung, but few scholæ seem to have made use of the book, not least because it left much to be desired from the perspective of musical restoration. Academic studies of liturgical music also largely tended to ignore the Offertories, which thus remained the least understood of the proper chants of the Mass.

One must be forgiven the suspicion that the neglect of the Offertory responsories was at least partly due to ideological predispositions. In the single-minded ambition to achieve active participation by making laymen do things, two mistaken convictions played a large role: that laymen in ancient times  participated in Offertory processions by bringing up their gifts to the altar, and that they sang the propers of the Mass. Both propositions, however, rest on surprisingly flimsy evidence.

Joseph Jungmann’s standard history of the Mass, Missarum Sollemnia, presents the received view of the Offertory ritual and music:

The entrance of the clergy at the start of Mass was made to the accompaniment of the introit sung by the schola cantorum. It was then but a natural application of the same principle that suggested that the “procession” of the people at the offertory and communion—both interruptions of the audible part of the Mass—should be enlivened and enriched by psalmodic song.[1]

Having decided the Offertory chant was equivalent in purpose to the Introit and Communion antiphons, Jungmann draws the conclusion that:

At first the offertory chant probably had the same antiphonal design as the chant at the introit: the schola, divided into two choirs, sang a psalm alternately, with an antiphon as prelude. The psalm varied from celebration to celebration, taking into account, as far as possible, the church year with its festival and seasons.[2]

Offertory (Drogo Sacramentary)
The ivory plates on the cover of the Drogo Sacramentary, depicting an offertory procession in the bottom left corner.

Other standard works on the Mass repeat the same account. Adrian Fortescue, e.g., uncritically states that, “like the Introit and Communion”, the Offertory was originally an antiphon sung with psalm verses, which dropped out of use in later centuries as the Offertory procession died out[3]. As far back as the 17th century Giovanni Bona, whose title was as Eminent as his learning, was already disseminating this view[4]. Books on Gregorian chant also repeat this, such as Willi Apel in his standard work entitled, whether by dearth of creativity or excess of ambition, Gregorian Chant:

Originally every member of the clergy and of the congregation participated in this pious act by bringing gifts which were consecrated and of which they received a part during the Communion […] The Offertory was still an antiphonal chant, probably an entire Psalm or the major part of it was sung antiphonally, similar to the Introit and Communion […] From the liturgical point of view, the Offertories belong in the same class as the Introit and Communion, i.e., chants accompanying an action, as opposed to the purely contemplative lesson chants, the Graduals, Alleluias, Tracts, and Responsories.[5]

In light of this consensus it is astounding to find that the earliest musical manuscripts entirely fail to comport to this account. The Offertory melodies in the sources diverge completely from the more simple Introits and Communions, and are instead more akin to the “purely contemplative lesson chants”: ornate, richly melismatic, with an ample range and frequently changing register and even tonality. In fact, in these qualities the Offertories often surpass any Gradual or Alleluia. Offertories do have verses, but these are not like the psalm verses sung to recitative tones as in the Introit and Communion; rather, they are like the freely composed verses of Graduals or Alleluias, meant to be sung by a soloist, full of “repetitions of words and musical phrases, chromaticisms, and lengthy melismas”[6].

The offertory Iubilate Deo, with its two verses, from SG 399.

To account for the discrepancy between assumption and fact, Jungmann has recourse to another assumption: “It is a striking fact [sic] that at a very early period the antiphonal performance of the offertory was abandoned and a responsorial style substituted for it”. Struggling to explain why this substitution might have occured, he goes on to say that “it is almost certain that the main consideration was to give the offertory chant a certain lengthiness, in view (obviously) of the people’s procession”. This could have easily been achieved by singing several psalm verses like the Introit and Communion, but perhaps “the responsorial form was chosen to make it easier for the singers to take part in the offertory procession”. His imagination continues,

This resulted in a shortening of the psalm, along with a corresponding compensation by both the enrichment of the melody of the verse sung as a solo, and by the repetition of the antiphon or a part thereof, after the manner of a refrain. This refrain could, of course, have been turned over to the people, but by this time there was obviously little interest in such participation of the people in responsorial chanting, at least in the greater stational services.[7]

Apel even ventures to give an approximate date for the Offertory chant’s strange mutation, viz. between 850 and 900, given that Aurelianus’ Musica disciplina, which seems to mention Offertory reciting verse tones like those of the Introit, was written around the former date, and later tonaries give no suggestion of such tones[8].

The elaborate Offertory verses were therefore taken to be Carolingian accretions that betrayed benighted notions of popular participation. They could hardly be expected to enjoy favor when ideals of congregational bustle and the exaltation of the pre-mediæval “primitive” Roman liturgy were among the main features of the Zeitgeist. Some liturgical reformers did call for the restoration of Offertory verses, but it is clear they were imagining psalm verses sung to simple reciting melodies like the Introit, which might taken up by a congregation, rather than the verses actually attested in the manuscripts, necessarily the preserve of trained singers. Fr H A Reinhold, for instance, dreamed of an “ideal parish Mass” where “all during the offertory the schola sang one of the old offertory verses […] The people took up the short responses”[9]. In the avant-garde liturgy he celebrated in the chapel of St Gertrude, Canon Pius Parsch actually put some of Reinhold’s reveries into effect: “As the choir chants the Offertory psalm and the community sings the refrain [in German], the Offertory procession begins”[10].

In the wake of the liturgical revolution after the Second Vatican Council, the novel Roman Mass duly featured an Offertory procession of the laity and dropped the Offertory chants from the Missal (although they were preserved in the 1974 Gradual, without verses).

As we shall see to-morrow, however, later research has demonstrated that the Offertory procession was not part of the primitive Roman rite, and there is no evidence that the Roman Offertory chant was originally antiphonal in the mould of the Introit or Communion.


[1]Jungmann, Joseph. Trans. by Francis Brunner. The Mass of the Roman Rite. Vol. II, p. 26.


[3]Fortescue, Adrian.The Mass, p. 303.

[4]Chorus canit antiphonam quae Offertorium nuncupatur, quia antiquo more populus interim sua dona offerebat. (Rerum liturgicarum libri duo, vol. II, VIII, 3.)

[5]Apel, Willi. Gregorian Chant, p. 192-3, 363.

[6]Hildey, David. Western Plainchant: A Handbook, p. 126.

[7]Jungmann, op. cit., p. 29.

[8]Apel, op cit., p. 512.

[9]Reinhold, H. A., “My Dream Mass” quoted in Reid, Alcuin. The Organic Development of the Liturgy, p. 109.

[10]Muellerleile, Ernest, quoted in Reid, Alcuin, op. cit. p. 111.

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