Super flumina Babylonis

My only regret about the Papal Mass at Westminister was the loss of the Gregorian offertory, which too often slips away from the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, probably because the text is not printed in the Missal for peculiar historical reasons. Nonetheless, the Offertory proper is just as much part of the Mass as the Introit or Communion chants. Specific reference is made to it in the GIRM actually. Even in the praxis of my own parish, the offertory is probably the last on the list of chants we learn, mainly because it is a lower priority from a pastoral point of view, and also because it tends to be more difficult and time consuming in rehearsal.

And yet, there are masterpieces here. This Sunday’s offertory is an example. It is Super flumina Babylonis: Upon the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept, as we remembered you, O Zion. The chant is incredibly evocative of the text. One has the sense that one is precisely where the chant describes, by waters, weeping, remembering. See the way the chant itself looks like what it describes. The singing of such phrases requires voices of practice fluidity and expression. The word accents play a special role here, intertwining with the musical phrase with dazzling complexity.

Here is a gorgeous rendition.

7 Replies to “Super flumina Babylonis”

  1. Just so I'm clear here… would you agree that another reason that some scholas don't perform the Gregorian offertories is that they're instead performing a readily-available polyphonic setting of the same text? Seems to me that the Offertory is perhaps the ideal part of the Mass to pursue a polyphonic proper.

  2. The Palestrina setting of this text is so beautiful. I have fond memories of singing it under Roger Wagner who interpreted it both rythmically and dynamically as was then the custom. "Illic sedimus et flevimus" in particular seem to lend itself to word painting and a restrained rubato.

  3. I once worked for a pastor who insisted that I didn't know what I was talking about, that the Offertories were not in the liturgical books and were therefore banned. I guess he just didn't understand what a "Sacramentary" is. It's funny to me now; it wasn't back then.

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