Recently I was talking with Fr Richard, a priest in a neighbouring parish who loves plainchant. We wondered what chant can be sung at the Offertory at Sunday mass if for various reasons it is difficult to learn the Offertory chant, for example if there is not much time to prepare or the chant is very complex. He suggested another Offertory or a motet. It got me wondering, because I hadn't heard of singing a different Offertory chant than the proper of the mass.
So I went on a wild goose chase looking for which chants could be sung at the Offertory. This turned out to be quite complicated. It seemed hard to find many hymns in the plainchant tradition that suit this moment in the mass well. Looking at the text of the Offertories themselves was also a puzzle. Many are lines from psalms that don't reflect the offertory procession or preparation of the gifts in a way that was obvious to me. But maybe I was looking at it in an analytical way instead of listening to the Offertory words themselves. In my wanderings on the internet and in books I found that there is a list of 7 Communion chants in the Parish Book of Chant which can be used at mass "ad libitum", or optionally. Could there be "ad libitum" Offertory chants, I wondered? I didn't find any, and the best guidance suggests it is best if the Offertory proper to the mass is sung.
A few years ago I remembered learning of the existence of the Great Offertories, either in one of our choir rehearsals or at St Cecilia's or Quarr Abbey. And once in one of our choir rehearsals, we observed that an Offertory included repeated words, which was quite intriguing.
I came across a fine recording of the Great Offertory for the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 'Vir erat', which Fr Peter has been teaching us recently. It is the full version that includes the verses. The offertory verses do not appear in the Gregorian Missal and they are very different to the verses of the Introit and the Communion. Whereas the Introit and Communion verses are set to psalm tones, the Offertory verses are not. They are more melismatic, with several notes sung on a single syllable.
You can hear the fine recording of this beautiful Offertory by the Gregorian Choir of Paris here:
The verses are the cries and laments of the suffering Job, with phrases repeated several times.
Trying to understand how the Offertory and the other proper chants blend with the mass, I came across this article by a monk at Silverstream Priory on their blog Vultus Christi. The community holds to the use of Latin and Gregorian chant and celebrates the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. I found many helpful and interesting points on the role of the Proper chants of the mass.
"Originally Mass was always sung. Not until the eighth or ninth century did the so called Low Mass or missa privata come to be celebrated at the lateral altars and private chapels of abbatial and collegiate churches. The Chants of the Proper of the Mass were not omitted at these Low Masses; they were recited by the priest alone. This fact, of itself, suggests that well before the eighth century, the Proper Chants were, in effect, considered to be constitutive elements of the Mass, deemed indispensable to the very shape of the liturgy."
The writer describes each of the propers and their purpose one by one, quoting earlier authors. For example he describes the Introit in this way: "The Introit ushers the soul into the mystery of the day not by explaining it, but by opening the Mass with a word uttered from above."
How the Offertory is described is inspiring:
"As for its musical characteristics, the Offertory is one of the richest and most expressive pieces in the Gregorian repertoire. Dom Eugène Vandeur, a Benedictine monk of the first half of the last century writes: 'More mystical and profound than either the Introit or the Gradual, it disposes our souls to recollection that thus they may fittingly assist at the Adorable Sacrifice about to be renewed. The Offertory [Antiphon], then, more than any other part of the Mass, is a sublime and inspired prayer rising to the throne of God.'"
Clearly there is so much to learn about the Offertory and this was a good place to start.