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an Advent "Ave Maria", and the mysterious origin of the Offertory Chant and its verses


wow!!

a note received after singing the Advent IV Ave Maria with verses the first time


As a Catholic wedding singer, I have a special interest in the Ave Maria. In fact, there are eight different settings in my regular rotation, not including any of the Gregorian or choral compositions. The text is considered to be the most frequently recited prayer of all time due to its repetition as the Hail Mary in the rosary. An Ave Maria typically includes two parts: the first is a direct quote from scripture (Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb), and the second a petition which was added several centuries later (Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners...).


The Ave Maria for Advent IV was composed before it became popular to add the invocation, and is entirely scriptural. It is also one of my favorite chants of all time. I still remember encountering it the first time, when I was very new to the chanted propers. On-demand music streaming was not yet readily available (yes, I realize I'm dating myself!), and I had to learn each chant on my own from its square notation. I was immediately captivated by the chant's graceful ebb and flow, reminding me of angel wings gently descending to earth. The internal melodic rhyming represents to me the thoughtful dialogue of proclamation and meditation: the words of the angel Gabriel, and Mary's interior reflection upon them.


Square notation for the Advent IV Ave Maria

Fast forward a few years, when I was invited to sing for an Advent novena (novem means "nine", so a novena is a prayer which is said every day for nine days) at a local parish. The bishop would be present that evening, and I could choose any Advent or Marian themed solo I wanted. I could have gone with the more traditional Schubert setting, or the virtuosic Bach/Gounod, but I wanted something more quietly meditative and truly representative of the liturgical season. So, I chose the Advent IV Ave Maria, and challenged myself to learn the verses.


The offertory chant verses are not for the faint of heart! My singing lasted almost seven minutes, and I made a couple mistakes. Apparently the chant made an impression, though, because afterwards an older gentleman approached me and quietly slipped a note into my hand. Inside was a single ornately decorated word:


WOW!!


So, what is an offertory chant?

The offertory chant is a proper antiphon. Propers are those texts which are proper to the liturgy at hand. Just as each liturgy has its own proper readings (e.g. Old and New Testament readings) which are unique to that day, so also are there proper prayers and proper songs (antiphons) which give a special character (or theme) to each liturgy. Just as the Gospel reading proclaiming the birth of Christ is only recited on Christmas Day, so each proper antiphon is relegated to a specific day.


(Side note: While every Catholic parish observes the proper readings and prayers for Mass, the use of the proper antiphons is less common, with more generalized songs and hymns taking their place. The antiphons have been growing in popularity over the past decade, however, and most disposable hymnals now include the proper entrance antiphon, i.e. introit, and proper communion antiphon along with the proper readings of the day's Mass.)


a "sumptuous musical offering"

It's unclear exactly how and when the offertory chant as a genre came to be, but we do know that it is a chant which is intended to accompany the liturgical action. This means that the offertory chant is meant to be sung while something else is happening, and is matched to the span of time which that something-else takes to be completed: namely, the offertory procession.


Now, the nature of the offertory procession has evolved quite a bit since early Christian times. It used to be customary to bring forth — to offer —  the best of one's crops, livestock, and handiwork at the altar, along with the bread and wine to be consecrated. During this procession, the schola and soloists would also offer their very best (a "sumptuous musical offering", as Daniel Saulnier describes it). "Wow!!" is very likely what the congregation said many centuries ago, when hearing the offertory chant and its verses being sung.

"The offertory chant...is the most splendid of all Roman chants, whether for Mass or Office. This splendor is one that matches the elaboration of the papal offertory rites themselves, nor should it surprise students of western music history that such a display of music takes place at this point in the service, which will see in the course of the centuries similar musical largesse in the form of offertory motets, organ voluntaries and the like." James McKinnon, The Advent Project (University of California Press, 2000) p. 324

As you can probably imagine, the offering of goods by the congregation took several minutes to conclude, and so quite a bit of music was needed to cover the action. The singing of the schola was thus augmented by the singing of cantor soloists, with highly ornate verses added to the offertory antiphons. If you look carefully, you can discern the full offertory verses for the Ave Maria of Advent IV in the manuscripts below...


above: XI c Graduale from St. Gallen; antiphon starts on first page, third line from bottom: "of A" (of = "offertory"); v. 1 "Quomodo" second line from bottom, v. 2 "Ideoque" top of second page, third line - original facsimile here


above: XII c Graduale from Klosterneuburg - original facsimile here


"Angela's approach to chant is so elegant and simple, inviting the student to understand and better proclaim the word of God in plainsong. I especially enjoyed a deeper analysis of each of the varying Gregorian modes, as well as practical tips for approaching advanced works. I highly recommend Angela's programs at ICA as well as her private instruction."
~ Rebecca de la Torre, creator of The Modern Psalmist


The Ave Maria for Advent IV is set in Mode VIII: perfectus (ethos of certitude, stability, affirmation, authority, a narrator's voice). In contrast with the texts of most of the propers, which usually come from the Psalms, this text is from the Gospel of Luke:


Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.

* Blessed art thou among women,

And blessed is the fruit of thy womb.


1. How can this be, since I do not know man?

The Spirit of the Lord will come upon thee,

And the power of the Most High will overshadow thee.


2. And therefore, the child to be born of thee

Will be called Holy, the Son of God.


The offertory chant and its verses: a few other notes of interest

  • The genre of the offertory antiphon is believed to be the latest addition to the body of chant propers.

  • A prescribed section of the offertory antiphon (the respond) would be sung by the whole schola at the conclusion of each verse. (The respond in this Ave Maria is marked by the asterisk: * "benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui.") Sometimes the respond is necessary to finish the chant in its prescribed mode, if the verse has wandered off and ended on a pitch other than than the finalis of the mode.

  • In the 11th century the offertory procession, and by default the offertory verses which were sung to cover its liturgical action, started to disappear. The only offertory chant which has retained a verse is Domine Jesu Christe of the Requiem Mass, with its single verse "Hostias et preces..." (The respond "Quam olim Abrahae promisisti, et semini ejus" is always sung at the conclusion of this verse.)

  • Each verse of a given offertory chant was likely assigned to its own soloist. This becomes evident upon examining the different compositional styles and ranges of the verses for a given chant. (For instance, in the Ave Maria recording above, the clef drops down a line at the second verse, allowing the range of the melody to rise a whole third higher than that of the first verse.)

  • The offertory verses are composed as free and individual melodies, in marked contrast to the verses of their counterpart graduals and tracts, which frequently repeat standard melodic phrases among them.

  • For Catholics, the offertory chant is specifically referenced in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), paragraph 74. It is not included in the Roman Missal (RM), however, because the antiphons included in the RM are meant to be recited by the priest, and the priest cannot recite the offertory antiphon while he is busy preparing the altar.


Later chant manuscripts omit the offertory verses:

above left: XIII c Cistercian Graduale from Romont (the "Ave Maria" occupies the lower half of the lefthand column) - facsimile here ~ right: XIV c Cistercian Graduale from Laon - facsimile here


Offertory Chant verse resources...

1. The recording in this article was made with the 1935 Offertoriale with verses, which may be found here.


2. This booklet by Richard Rice has simplified verses, utilizing the Gloria Patri tones.


3. The Offertoriale Restitutum by Anton Stingl, with restored melodies (example below: click each image to enlarge)


In conclusion... Did you learn something from this article? Does it change the way you perceive the music at the offertory? What kinds of music would you include as a "sumptuous musical offering" during the offertory procession today?


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