“Metrics” to evaluate liturgical music and texts
I believe, based on his recent comment, that Mike J. is an engineer. :)
I think it is difficult to establish any objective criteria for evaluating many things, perhaps most, in life in general. That said, I will try to offer these as criteria for evaluating liturgical music:
(Since I really think texts and music should be evaluated separately, I am going to do so here.)
Appropriateness for performers. Does the music adequately suit the nature of the performers’ liturgical role? For congregations, this means a question of how accessible the music is and, perhaps, how memorable the melody is. With what degree of ease could a Southern Baptist, who is visiting a “papist service” for the first time, pick up and sing the music?
For choral music, this means a question of how “choral” the music is. A piece like Kendzia “Pietà” fails in this regard, IMO, because it’s all homophonic, the SATB parts are mostly a chorale, and the congregation is intended to sing part of it. In short, it’s too simple not to ask a congregation to sing it. By contrast, Berger “The Eyes of All” is also all homophonic, but its harmonic activity and range very clearly are written for a choir, not for a congregation. Likewise, most chant and polyphony are too tricky to ask an unrehearsed congregation to step in and to sing them.
Aesthetic value. How on earth do we evaluate this? I imagine every reader here would consider a good performance of Palestrina “Sicut” to be of more aesthetic worth than, say, Sr. With-it strumming a guitar and singing “Abba, Father!” But how can we demonstrate this with any objectivity - especially since there are folks out there who think Renaissance polyphony is like nails on a chalkboard and that any guitar-accompanied music is an improvement upon the “old stuff”.
That said, I do think that, if we go to extremes, there is objectivity in aesthetics. All humans, for example, would probably dislike a very loud screeching noise, for example, or a very loud chomping sound. These are things that we instinctively perceive as threats.
Certainly if we go to other senses, we find objectivity in human aesthetic judgement: facial symmetry (quoth my undergrad psych professor), sexual intercourse, ice cream .... is there anyone who would contest the idea that anyone in a normal psychological state enjoys these aesthetic experiences?
Texts are another matter. The question that I see is: do we accept as unimpeachably perfect the liturgical texts as given? In my opinion, we should not do this, but I also think more weight should be given to the chant proper texts than is currently done.
For example, an improvement on the Gospel reading for All Saints that I can see is including the last line of the Matthew Beatitudes: “For thus did they persecute the prophets who came before you.” (Hel-LOO?!?!?? All SAINTS?? Prophets???) Lucien Deiss felt that improvement could be made to the Pentecost introit, as he wrote in “Spirit and Song of the New Liturgy”. (I disagree with him that the given text is poor, but I do think other texts could work as well.)
But if one takes the tack that the currently given liturgical texts are the de facto “optimal” texts, then yes, we have some easy criteria with which to evaluate the suitability of sung texts: specifically, the closer one gets to those chant texts, either with the chant melodies or in other settings, in Latin or in translations, the better job we have done of choosing texts.
Gavin pointed out an additional concern in the comments: suitability of music and text to each other.
Many, for example, might question the somber character of the sinfonia of Bach BWV4 for Easter Sunday. Likewise, it would be strange to many people to use a bright, confident melody with, say, Brady/Tate Psalm 22. Gavin’s example of “Your Hands, O Lord, in Days of Old” to MOZART is more food for thought.