The organ playing from Cathedral Organist Thomas Sheehan in the recessional hymn, “Hark, the Herald Angel’s Sing” was glorious, especially his High Anglican organ improvisation interludes. Very moving, close to tear-inducing (at least for me) while watching the recessional complete with thurifer/incense and the well-trained acolytes and vergers. His superb playing made me smile because this is the way the music in an Anglican cathedral is supposed to sound. It reminded me of the brilliant former Cathedral Organist, Benjamin Straley, when he first arrived at WNC.
Hola a todos. Washington National Cathedral (WNC) in the District of Columbia has a new organist, Thomas Sheehan, although he doesn’t officially start until Summer of 2019, but he played for the 2018 Christmas Eve Mass at WNC. His playing was excellent. I found him most enjoyable. Rather High Church and I’m a High Church person, so muchas gracias for that, Thomas. Hopefully he will be allowed to keep his playing High Church and not be asked to “tone it down” to boring and dull Low Church with the excuse being “because we’re not High Church here at WNC. We like to cater to the tourists who are only here once and who are more accustomed to the podunk/redneck(?) ‘praise bands’ genre.” Groan. Who wants to hear Low Church playing in an Anglican cathedral? I suppose someone does; somebody with no taste in music!
A little bit about Thomas’s background: He’s currently the Associate University Organist and Choirmaster at the Memorial Church at Harvard University. He’s a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music where he earned diplomas in organ and harpsichord. He also trained at Westminster Choir College where he earned his Master of Music and Bachelor of Music (BM) degrees. (The BM degree is a performance degree, for those who don’t know). “Clearly the boy is well trained” as they would say. He is indeed well trained and very talented. And it takes talent to improvise as expertly as Thomas does.
When I saw Thomas at the organ console, I thought that perhaps he was auditioning to replace Benjamin Straley who left WNC earlier in 2018 to pursue his ultimate goal — despite his superb organ skills — of being an Anglican priest (which he is now) at a small parish in Essex, Connecticut. I would think Benjamin would have access to the parish organ for keeping up his skills. It would be a shame for them to become “rusty” from lack of use. Of course his skills are always there, he would just have to retrieve them and depending upon how long it’s been since he last played, the “retrieving” time would vary.
About Benjamin and his move to the US state of CT (Connecticut): When I heard about that I was thinking that it would be quite a culture shock for him in a couple of ways. Having lived in the District of Columbia which is a major US city, it’s not part of any state because it’s the Federal District and the capital of the US, I can tell you that fortunately living in the District is much different than living in a small town. And a large cathedral is much different than a small parish. Personally, I’m a cathedral person and a city person. Benjamin lived in DC for about 6 years, which is quite awhile to then up and move to a small town. I couldn’t do that being a city person. Although one can get burned out on the political atmosphere in the District. I know I did, and I wasn’t even paying that close attention to politics at that time. DC is a very transient political City and when I lived there it was said that the average stay was about 2 years. But perhaps Benjamin felt he needed a major change, as this most assuredly would be. But anyway, Thomas was hired shortly after or around the same time that Our Benjamin left WNC. I was wondering if Thomas was run through three auditions like Benjamin said he had at WNC? Can you imagine anyone giving Benjamin three auditions with his talent, skills and musical abilities? Oh good lawd. I know one needs to be careful and very selective about the musicians one hires especially for the position of organist in a cathedral church, but really, I should think two auditions would have been sufficient for Benjamin, don’t you? Despite his maturity, maybe it was his “youthful” appearance and young age at the time that led to three auditions.
Some people who feel that Our Benjamin was the finest organist WNC ever had are asking: Is Thomas the next “Benjamin Straley?” Well, he very well may be. But in my opinion, it’s much too early to tell and it really may not have anything to do with Thomas and his organ skills, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
Personally, I wouldn’t go by just one Liturgy that Thomas played and especially a Liturgy that is usually or supposed to be more High Church anyway (Christmas Eve Mass) to make any determinations about him. I would have to hear Thomas over months to determine if he’s another Benjamin, or better. Is that possible? I mean no disrespect whatsoever to Thomas, but it would be hard to top the original very High Church Benjamin Straley who first showed up at WNC in his early days after being hired in 2012? I remember saying about him: He’s one of the finest organists I’ve ever heard. And I may have said he’s the best organist they’ve ever hired, although I don’t know that I would have said that not having heard most of all the previous organists at WNC. But anyway, Benjamin was superb/brilliant in his early days at WNC. The reader may be asking, “What do you mean by in his early days?” Well I’ll get to that in a moment. And Benjamin always seemed to be a most humble and modest guy despite his extraordinary talents and skills from what I could tell from the videos. He had not let his success go to his head which is one of the signs of a true artist and mature human being, to not be stuck on himself. Very down-to-Earth. He was certainly better than his predecessor who for my taste was too Low Church.
Thomas has excellent improvisational skills which are critical in an Anglican Liturgy. I’m thinking of High Church now. Upon reflection, does one need any improvisational skills in Low Church? lol. I. Don’t. Think. So. Or not to many. Podunk Low Church congregations seem to be just fine with hearing what amounts to Southern Baptist hymns such as “Bringing in the Sheaves” or “Revive Us Again” (roll eyes) played “by the book” where one would otherwise be improvising. In fact, I’ve occasionally wondered by Low Church people don’t just come out of the closet and be Southern Baptists since they pretty much act just like them in their worship manner and style. I can hear them now: “Genuflect to the reserved sacrament before entering the pew? What’s that? We don’t do that in Low Church. Bow to the processional crosses? Oh good gracious no, wouldn’t dream of it! We don’t do that in Low Church. That’s for those High Church people whom we avoid.” I see. And I avoid Low Church people. They annoy me. I mean, would it really put you out to bow to the processional cross, or genuflect at the side of the pew? Consider it a little bit of exercise. Or are you opposed to that too?
Mi amigo/My friend said Thomas’s playing style particularly in the recessional hymn is what one expects to hear for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England — and expects in an Anglican cathedral. “It doesn’t get any better than this!” mi amigo said. It was deeply moving, close to tear-inducing (at least for me) while watching the recessional with the thurifer/incense and the well-trained acolytes and vergers, all of whom looked like they completely ignored the fake-Christian orange despot parked on the front pew. Thomas’s superb playing made me smile because this is the way the music in an Anglican cathedral is supposed to sound in my opinion. It reminded me of the brilliant former Cathedral Organist, Benjamin Straley, when he first arrived at WNC. Mi amigo asked: How long will Thomas be allowed to play like this at WNC? Exactamente. That’s my point too. They at WNC seem to try to stifle High Anglican superb playing like this. It seems that they think that High Anglican organ playing will “scare away the tourists” rather than realising that’s what they came to hear and expect to hear in a grand cathedral church. I forget where I read it, but I read online that some of the resident congregation at WNC who are referred to as “the liberals in Upper Northwest” — meaning the Upper NW quadrant of the District where the cathedral is located — resent the cathedral catering to the tourists because each tourist is only there once, or at the most twice, so why cater to them? That’s the same thing I’ve asked. Grace Cathedral (Anglican Communion) in San Francisco has tourists as well since San Francisco is a tourist City, and from my experience at Grace they don’t cater to the tourists. Grace tries to be as “British” as possible. I’ve heard locals say about Grace, “They put on a good show up there” (the cathedral is on Nob Hill).*
Back to what I said earlier: Our Benjamin was High Church when he arrived at WNC, and it was surprising to me that they had hired someone like him. I wrote about it at the time. I asked, “Does WNC plan to become more High Church?” Then I was surprised when they started implementing some High Church features into their Sunday morning Liturgy. I had wondered whether they had been suggestions from Benjamin. If they were his suggestions, they didn’t last long. I remember complaining about the priests nearly jogging around the free-standing altar with the incense where virtually no smoke was coming out of the thurible. The thurible hadn’t been properly prepared. Either that, or they just wanted to give the appearance that they were using incense without actually using any, or very little to show faint smoke. It was if the more Low Church priests — especially that Dean at the time (was he asked to leave WNC abruptly?) — were not comfortable using incense. They also started chanting the responses before and after The Gospel. I didn’t like the chants they were using — who chose those boring things? — because they were rather dull, but at least they were chanting the responses. You have to take what you can get, I guess. By comparison, the chants used before and after The Gospel at St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan were/are far superior. Why didn’t they use those, or are they not familiar with them? Just listen to their Sunday morning Liturgies and one will hear them. I think they’re still using them. Especially the chant after The Gospel where the superb trebles at St Thomas soar on “Praise to you, Lord Christ.” That’s glorious depending upon the key used by the organist — the higher the better for soaring boys’ voices — and it was based on the key of the Sequence Hymn before the chant. But unfortunately, none of these High Church changes stuck at WNC. They were only temporary. I suspect that disappointed Benjamin if these suggestions to make the Liturgy more High Church had come from him. Not that they ever read it, but I had suggested in an article that they chant The Nicene Creed with Our Benjamin playing improvised chords underneath the congregation and choristers who would be chanting the Creed on a single note. They did this at Grace Cathedral at one time, but that suggestion never took off. Chanting the Nicene Creed with the Cathedral Organ playing quietly underneath the Chant and with appropriate crescendos at places in the Creed, such as in this section:
“On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
That section on the organ would be played more gloriously creating a nice effect and giving a uniquely positive atmosphere to the Liturgy.
But anyway, Thomas’s improvisational skills do somewhat remind me of Benjamin’s. At one point — I think it was during the recessional hymn (“Hark, the Herald…”) — it looked like Thomas was playing too fast flying up one of the manuals improvising for the action of the organ to keep up with him. And didn’t I hear him using the 64′ in the processional hymn (“Adeste Fideles”)? “Let ‘er rip, Thomas!”
Back to Benjamin for a moment: When Benjamin was Organist, I sensed that he had been told by someone to “tone it down.” I wrote about my suspicions about this. Because when Benjamin first arrived at WNC, he was a very High Church organist. I was delighted they had hired him. He was a perfect choice. But at one point something changed in his playing style in his service music. It was as if he had been reprimanded, as if someone said to him, “Benjamin we need to talk with you for a moment. We enjoy your playing, but we are not High Church here, so maybe you could tone things down a bit?” I don’t know that anyone said that to him but that’s the impression I and others got because his playing style rather abruptly changed to a more Low Church style. After that, I no longer found his playing that interesting to hear to be honest. And I kept watching the Liturgies waiting to hear the original Benjamin play again. Some of his occasional organ improvisations he played for the Organ Voluntary at the end of the Liturgy reminded me of the original Benjamin, but that was it. I remember asking, “What’s happened to our High Church Benjamin? Is he bored with the job and no longer has the enthusiasm he originally had.” Even his improvisations during the Liturgy changed. They were no longer the grand and glorious High Church improvisations he came there with. I remember that his improvisations especially after the reading of The Gospel consistently became more subdued, quiet organ playing and what I called “meditative,” and then he seemed to be stuck in that style. Week after week, I kept waiting for grand and glorious High Church Benjamin to return. But it didn’t. I didn’t hear it. Well, the same thing could happen to Thomas, and it won’t surprise me if it does. So I feel a certain reserve is necessary in coming to any conclusions too early about Thomas. And again, this would have nothing to do with Thomas, but rather his “bosses” (the Choirmaster Michael, the Dean or even the Bishop) telling him what playing style they prefer to hear in WNC.
The descant on the recessional hymn was excellent and that was sung from the back of the Nave. I enjoyed that. One could hear it soaring above the hymn as it should and Thomas’s High Church interludes we deeply moving for me. High Church, Yes! The way it should be. Not that one can’t have High Church in a parish as they do all the time at St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Even though many people think St Thomas is a cathedral because of its exterior appearance, it’s a parish church. It’s not the seat of the Bishop. That’s the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine in Manhattan.
I would also like to praise the acolytes and thurifer. They were very well trained and with Thomas’s superb playing it gave the Liturgy a rather High Church feel. I very much appreciated it. Muchas gracias.
Someone (Owen) sent me a nice email I’ll pass along:
“I recently began reading your series of articles on Washington National Cathedral, especially with respect to Our Benjamin. I know that you haven’t been following them for a while, but I just wanted to say that I totally agree with most of what you say about his playing.
The purpose of this email is to inform you that music at WNC seems to have gotten better this year, especially at the Christmas Eve Holy Eucharist. Descants on every song that had one, and much better hymn playing(though still choppy). However, I mainly wanted share with you some very high church organ playing from someone not named Benjamin Straley.
As you may or may not be aware, Our Benjamin left the Cathedral in July of 2018 to become an Episcopal priest. His replacement, Thomas Sheehan of Harvard University, was announced that month as well. Christmas Eve saw his first service at the Cathedral, although he will not begin his full-time work until July of 2019.
I was initially very skeptical that anyone would be able to replace Benjamin. Any concerns I had, however, were instantly gone when I heard Sheehan’s playing. Sheehan’s organ skills are incredible, especial with respect to his improvisational abilities. I would even argue that he may be more High Church than Our Benjamin.
Even though you don’t follow WNC anymore, I want you to view this year’s Christmas Eve Service. What do you think of Sheehan’s playing? Do you think he is a worthy successor to Our Benjamin?
Here are the timings:
25:08 – O Come, All Ye Faithful
51:45 – Improvisation when Gospel is brought back to Altar
1:48:45 – Long communion improvisation into Silent Night; no stained glass!
1:57:00 – Hark the Herald Angels Sing with two VERY High Church interludes
Here is the video of the entire service:
On a side note, I may have some input on why hymns are played in a staccato manner at WNC. In an article you wrote, you mentioned how St. Paul’s Cathedral has a longer echo than WNC, yet they play hymns with full value notes. This is certainly true.
However, you have to understand the organ at WNC. They suffer from a problem known as “organ placement.” While the organ sounds like it fills the space completely, it in fact has great trouble doing so. If you are sitting out in the nave, it is very difficult to follow along with the organ. This is due to the fact that much of the organ’s mechanical components pipes are poorly placed in the building. The direction that the mechanical components and pipes faces determines the determines the direction that the sound made by the pipes travel. At WNC, many of the pipes face in a direction where they speak cause the majority of the sound to hit wall before Nave. This makes it difficult for the organ to lead hymns properly because the congregation out in the Nave is hearing an echo and not the organ itself. If the organist plays all the notes full value, the sound becomes very muddy and difficult to follow.
If you are in the front half of the Nave when the organ plays hymns in a staccato manner, you get about one or two beats behind the organ itself. If you are in the back of the nave, this delay increases to about three beats. If the organist plays the hymns full value, you can expect to get three beats behind in the front half of the Nave, and worse if you are in the rear half. You get farther and farther behind when the hymns are played fully because the sound is muddy and difficult to follow along if you are not used to doing so. In order to overcome the problem, the organist plays the hymns in a staccato manner so that you can sing the hymns and not get really far behind.
BTW, they were playing hymns in a staccato manner before Michael McCarthy got there, so don’t blame this on him.”
My response: Muchas gracias for your nice email, Owen. I appreciate it. I’m not disputing anything you wrote about the placement of the organ, and I wasn’t aware of all that.
Regarding the hymn playing, when Our Benjamin was hired he played the hymns legato with full note values, as he had been trained. I distinctly remember that. And that seemed to work just fine, in part, because the congregation at WNC is not a singing congregation. As I remember writing, they are a “stand and mumble” congregation, as one observed on the very familiar Christian hymn “Silent Night” in this Liturgy. I only heard the choristers, clergy and Cathedral Organ. The congregation was standing, the Nave was packed with people staring down at their service leaflets or staring straight ahead as some people were doing in the Quire area, and not singing at all or at a whisper-level mumble-singing. Just moving their lips to the words. Considering that, it really doesn’t matter how the hymns are played. So I’ll go with legato, as the organist was trained. I’m not being flippant. I’m just being realistic. Why should the organist cater to a non-singing congregation by playing staccato — which is not how credible organists at Conservatories and Schools of Music are trained to play hymns — when they’re not going to sing regardless of how the organist plays? Has Michael not noticed this phenomenon despite all his head turns backwards towards the congregation that the congregation does not sing no matter how the hymn are played? I should also point out that congregations are notorious for dragging hymns whether they can hear the organ well or not, which is in part, why organists are trained to “lead the hymns with the organ” otherwise the hymn will come to a stand-still. In other words, the organ for hymn playing should be played loudly and dominant the way Thomas (and Benjamin before him) played it, with registration variations on each verse of course, usually. That’s what one expects to hear in a grand cathedral church as well as a parish. Staccato playing is helpful when the congregation is dragging. That’s the only time I ever used it when I was Organist/Choirmaster in Anglican parishes. It helps to pick them back up to the original tempo of the hymn, assuming they were singing to begin with! But at WNC, most people are just not big on singing. There’s the small resident congregation. They don’t sing either or at least loud enough to be heard. Then there’s the tourists which some members of the resident congregation resent the cathedral catering to. The tourists don’t sing. When the cameras show them they’re staring straight ahead with arms folded not following any Anglican worship protocol (such as bowing to the processional crosses), or they’re looking around as if they think they’re in a museum. Not to be redundant, but in the Nave on Christmas Eve, I saw people just staring down and others standing and staring straight ahead. These people were not singing even the most familiar of well-known hymns that, I think, all Christian churches use in the US.
A congregational rehearsal might be useful for them:
My personal experience: One of the Anglican parishes (it was Anglo-Catholic/High Church) I was Organist-Choirmaster for would occasionally rehearse the congregation before the Mass began. We rehearsed the service music as well as the hymns. I remember the Rector asking the congregation to “Sing out, sing loudly. Don’t be afraid, make a joyful sound. I want to hear you, the congregation, and not just the Choir up in the back Gallery at the organ console.”
The rehearsals did help, at least for that Mass because it was fresh in people’s minds. A congregational rehearsal; however, does intrude on the organist’s time s/he has for their organ voluntary/prelude at the beginning of the Liturgy. So, having a rehearsal every Sunday wouldn’t be a good idea although that’s really what’s needed here.
Contrast the congregational “singing” or rather mumble-singing at WNC with a real-singing congregation that can be heard at St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. They sing rather loudly and almost sound rehearsed, although they’re not. Perhaps they sing so well because some members of the congregation — and it’s usually women’s voices I hear — think, “We’re supposed to sing well here because 1) I have a boy in the Choir of Men and Boys, 2) we have this superb Choir of Men and Boys with its residential Choir School (the only one in the US) and 3) we’re here among many of the finest music schools and musicians with The Juilliard School in Lincoln Center, the Manhattan School of Music, the Mannes School of Music and others.”
Here’s a scenario: WNC seats about 4,000-plus. When at capacity as it was for this Liturgy, think of it as a “Chorus of 4,000 voices” in other words. Now I don’t at all expect the congregation for this Liturgy of 4,000 voices to sound like a polished Symphony Chorus such as the Choral Arts Society of Washington or the now-retired University of Maryland Chorus, each having 150-200 voices. My point is that if either of those two Orchestra Choruses were performing in WNC, their sound would fill the Nave and there would be no doubt that they were singing. Yet here for this Liturgy, you have a “Chorus of 4,000 voices,” and one can barely hear them because again, they’re not singing. If they were truly singing as they should be regardless of their vocal quality, they would likely be heard out on Wisconsin Avenue outside the Cathedral. I saw the faces of the people there in the congregation on Christmas Eve and many of them looked as if they were thinking that “singing is corny or old-fashioned.” Might this be because there’s little to no music in the public schools anymore?
For example, here’s the video of when the Choral Arts Society of Washington (CASW) performed for Norman Scribner’s memorial at WNC. (Norman was the Founder and former Director of the CASW). Listen to their Brahms (at 54.45) and later the Rachmaninov pieces with Our Benjamin accompanying the Choral Arts Society Chorus. Their sound would easily fill the Nave. Yet when the Cathedral has 4,000-plus people/voices in it, the volume level is the opposite of the sound of only 150-200 voices of the Choral Arts Society who were seated in the Quire area.
A brief aside: During “Silent Night” the WNC camera crew showed us a shot of the international bully/orange despot — Mr Fake-Christian who has lived his life the exact opposite of that of Jesus and whose despicable policies are also the exact opposite of what Jesus taught and how he lived his life — who was parked on the front pew with that wife of his. You know, it must be written somewhere in the White House that if one is going to be a resident there that one must pretend to be a Christian to dupe one’s gullible base — since they all do it — because this guy had no interest in Christianity before he took up residency there. And any other time, his church is a golf course on Sundays. But why did WNC feel the need to show us this basura, this Christian fraud? This Liturgy was about the birth of Jesus, not a narcissistic bullying man-child politician. I know this is The Establishment’s church, but this Liturgy was not about political basura.)
On another topic and something I’ve never understood about WNC, I see that Michael is still using that — what looks like — Southern Baptist Choir seating arrangement (that’s what I call it) rather than having the Cathedral Choir in the Quire stalls where they are supposed to be. That’s the purpose of Quire stalls. For the Cathedral Choir to sit there. I do not understand why he seats the Cathedral Choir in the Sanctuary area. I have never seen that done in any Anglican cathedral or parish church anywhere before. Only at WNC. Where did he get that? It looks so “Protestant” to me, and we High Church people don’t consider ourselves “Protestant.” Does having the Cathedral Choir in the Sanctuary area right behind the priests have anything to do with the organ placement problem Owen wrote about? I would find that a little hard to believe that it does because the Cathedral Choir has only been moved a few feet away from where they are supposed to be in the Quire stalls. Does a few feet make that much difference in the sound, and isn’t he blocking the Sanctuary1 somehow, even though the Choir is split so one can sort of still see the High Altar and the acolytes can still pass through? I’m just asking because I’ve never understood why he does that. Yet for Choral Evensong (which is supposed to be a more intimate setting), the Cathedral Choir of Men and Girls/Boys sits in the Quire stalls where they’re supposed to be.
Finally, looking at a recent service leaflet on WNC’s site, they referred to “the Girls Cathedral Choir.” I didn’t know that the girls had a cathedral — did you? — which that can imply. I think they mean the Girls of the Cathedral Choir. I remember writing about that when I was writing about WNC. So they’re still saying that even though it doesn’t make any sense. Just like they were writing “The Men’s Cathedral Choir” and “The Boy’s Cathedral Choir” instead of The Men of the Cathedral Choir and The Boys of the Cathedral Choir since the Cathedral Choir consists of Men, Boys and Girls. They do so have it together there at WNC. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Benjamin left.
Again, gracias to Owen for his kind email. Chau.—el barrio rosa
1 For those who don’t know and who come from other Christian denominations, when I refer to the Sanctuary I’m not referring to the entire room as some other Christian denominations do. In Anglican cathedrals, the Sanctuary is the area around the free-standing altar and only that. It’s not the entire room where the congregation sits. That’s called the Nave.