The Palestrina Offertoria

Recently, I have been taking a renewed interest in the Palestrina Offertoria. These sixty-eight, 5-voice (SATTB), polyphonic masterpieces set the text of the proper Offertory antiphons of the Mass of the Roman Rite. While Palestrina’s Offertory cycle originally pertained to what we now call the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, it is still highly useful for the Ordinary Form, since the texts of these chants have changed relatively little since the reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council.

The Palestrina Offertoria (or the Offertoria totius anni secundum Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae consuetudinem, as it was called in its original edition) was first published in 1593, just one year before Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s death in February of 1594.

The entire collection can be found in beautiful, performance-ready editions – all for free download – at the Choral Public Doman Library, which continues to be an invaluable resource for sacred music choirs around the globe.

The Palestrina Offertoria is a remarkable collection in many ways:

Firstly, it is essentially the last work of a master composer in old age (nearly 70 years old). Of all of the works of Palestrina, these pieces surely are among his most refined, and focused. We might rightly assume that the culmination of everything he accomplished in the art of composition throughout the course of his life was distilled in these works, which were his last gift to the liturgy and to humanity. We would do very well to immerse ourselves in them and allow the master composer to speak to us though them, teaching us the lessons he spent his lifetime learning.

Secondly, I find it very telling that Palestrina spent his dying days not composing music that would simply display his masterful artistic prowess, in forms that stretch beyond common conventions, showing forth a vision of what is to come in the world of sacred music. Rather, he spent these days providing a useful and timeless collection of liturgical music for the Universal Church. He set to music the Propers of the Mass, an essential part of the fabric of the liturgy, so that future generations could benefit from his artistic genius as they pursue their work as servants of the liturgy, singing its proper and native texts.

Thirdly, I find Palestrina’s polyphonic Offertories to be perfectly suited to the Offertory of the Mass. Note that he composed no cycles of polyphonic Introits, Graduals, Alleluias or Communions. The modern GIRM says very little about the purpose of the Offertory Chant, even though it mentions it by name. This is not surprising since the Missal of Paul VI left the Offertory proper out altogether, which gets us into many other varied discussions. But the role of the Offertory chant, as we learn from history and from scholars such as Dom Daniel Saulnier, is to provide in the liturgy a kind of “musical offering” that accompanies the offerings of the gifts of the bread and wine, and the gift that the faithful make of themselves during this time of ritual action. The Offertory is not particularly a time for congregational singing. The liturgical action at this time leads to the full-voiced singing of the Sanctus by the faithful as they join the heavenly hosts around the altar of the heavenly wedding feast of the lamb. The Palestrina Offertoria, then, offer a perfectly sumptuous offerting unto the Lord, in polyphonic perfection. If choirs were to take up the singing of these pieces, they would find a perfect complement to the highly melismatic Gregorian Offertories, and a much-welcomed musical elaboration on the proper texts that are sung unto the Lord at the moment of the liturgical offertory.

My particular interest in such repertoires is growing since I have recently accepted the post of Director of Sacred Music in the cathedral of my home diocese. A cathedral choir that staffs paid professionals – much like those in Palestrina’s days – can often handle such repertoire much more easily than a parish choir comprised of highly motivated volunteers. While the cycle of Palestrina Offertoria might not be sung in every parish setting, as the Offertory proper can be – especially in simpler vernacular settings – such settings can show forth the beauty of the sacred music tradition and can inspire even the humblest parish musicians toward the heights of the musical treasury of the Roman Rite.

Whether the Offertory propers are sung in Palestrina’s masterful settings, or in their native Gregorian settings, or in simpler vernacular settings such as the Simple English Propers and others, the genius of the Roman Rite expresses itself with a “textual unity”, according to the set Proper of the Mass.

I’m particularly excited about a new resource that is about to hit the parish market in a matter of weeks, the Lumen Christi Missal, which is among the first pew books in recent Catholic history to include the Offertory proper in both text (Latin and English) and in simple chant settings that can be sung by congregations and beginning scholas. With this one book, parishes can utilize the Gregorian chant Offertories, the Palestrina (or Byrd or any other composers of classical polyphony), in addition to a variety of vernacular chant or choral settings that can be sung in the most humble of places. The significance is that the textual unity of the Roman Rite is preserved, and the options that make themselves available are based in the capabilities and resources of parish choirs and congregations, not in various disparate preferences for musical style or text.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina is arguably the most important composer in the entire history of Catholic sacred music. Pope St. Pius X mentioned him by name – next to Gregorian chant – in his 1903 Motu Proprio Tra le sollecitudini, as a timeless and universal model of sacred music for the liturgy of the Roman Rite. This precedent, of course, was carried into Sacrosanctum concilium of Vatican II, with its explicit mention of classical polyphony – following the principem locum allocation of Gregorian chant – which is to be understood as especially the polyphony of the “Roman School”, a school of polyphonic composition of which Palestrina was the father and primary exponent. His Offertoria – the culmination of his life’s work, and the consummate refinement and mastery of his technique – are an invaluable gift to the Universal Church and remain invaluable to us today. We would do well to understand their unique role in the authentic history of Church music, and to give them a kind of “pride of place” in our liturgical celebrations today.

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