A Tacky Big Band Widor Toccata at Washington National Cathedral (Organist Benjamin Straley)

Update: Benjamin Straley performed for Donald Trump. One would have hoped he would have higher standards than that! Read more about that here at the top of the page.

This article is about Washington National Cathedral, a cathedral church of the worldwide Anglican Communion, in the District of Columbia.

Hola. I really don’t understand what was in the minds of those who came up with this tacky idea and those who approved it.

The Widor Toccata (from Symphony No. 5, by Charles-Marie Widor) is played on occasion at Washington National Cathedral (WNC). It’s one of the most popular works of the French organ repertoire. I don’t remember the last time the piece was played there before this occasion but with other churches — such as St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan — the piece is usually played on Pascua, La Resurrección de Cristo/Easter Sunday for the Organ Voluntary. In the Anglican Communion, the piece is sometimes played as the Organ Voluntary for memorial services and funerals as was the case when the late J Reilly Lewis played it for his longtime friend’s funeral — Norman Scribner, the founder and director of the Choral Arts Society of Washington — at WNC.

But this was just weird. “Damn odd, Ms Bucket”…”it’s Bouquet” (from Keeping Up Appearances. If you watched that British comedy you’ll understand that). Imagine you’re listening to the Widor Toccata at WNC played by Cathedral Organist, Benjamin Straley, and then all of a sudden Benjamin stops “in the middle of the piece” and then one hears Big Band music played by — what I call — the Washington National Cathedral Jazz Night ClubTM. That’s what it amounts to. That’s what it reminds me of. What they played was composed/arranged music playing off of the melody line of the Toccata heard in the pedal line of the original organ piece. Then, after that went on for awhile, Benjamin resumed where he had left off and played more of the original piece. Then he stopped again so that they could play more Big Band music. They played awhile then stopped again and Benjamin picked up where he had left off. This organ/Big Band pattern happened three times during the piece. Then they all came together at the end on the final chords of the piece with the Great Organ (Benjamin playing the original) and the WNC Jazz Night Club ensemble playing their Big Band part. Then finally the thing was over. Even though the cathedral had been packed for this Liturgy — it was the installation of the new Dean — they got very little applause. So I wasn’t sure whether everyone had quickly left or it was an indication of disapproval with Widor’s Toccata being screwed with.

Someone might be asking: Why didn’t Benjamin play the original as Widor composed it? The Jazz Night Club ensemble had already played during the Liturgy so why was it necessary for them to stick their nose in the Organ Voluntary too? Why was it necessary to insert three sections of Big Band-style music in Widor’s original piece? Well I’d like to hear the answers to those questions myself. Because I fail to see the purpose of what they did, unless they were just “trying to be different just to be different,” which is ludicrous. Silly. I don’t understand the reason for inserting jazz music into classical music pieces. Why would one do that? I can hear someone say, “we’re trying to ‘freshen them up’ by making them more relevant/contemporary.” Oh I see. Then when might we expect to hear parts of John Adams’s extremely difficult Harmonium (1980) for Chorus and Orchestra inserted into Erroll Garner’s jazz piece Misty (1954) to “freshen it up and make it more ‘relevant’?” Not that I think they should do that but hopefully you get the point.

Benjamin went along with this. I also didn’t understand why it was important to bring in jazz/Big Band music for this Anglican Liturgy, the installation of the new Dean. What message were they trying to send by doing that? That this new Dean is a “cool, hipster, jive, jazzed and get-down” new Dean?

My personal view is based on how I was trained at the Conservatory of Music where I studied: We were taught that pieces such as Widor’s Toccata and the classical music repertoire in general should be played as closely as possible to the authentic/urtext edition/score to honour the wishes of the composer as much as possible. Not doing so is considered being disrespectful to the composer. That’s how all well-trained musicians are taught from my experience.

I just found this very odd. But you know, I suspect this will happen again there at WNC and perhaps with the Widor or with another classical organ work. Or they may add some jazz or Big Band to one or more of Bach’s organ works that Benjamin plays for his organ preludes. At this point, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least what they do. I’ve come to expect the worst. Frankly, they don’t really seem to have any standards there now. One gets the impression that “anything goes” when it comes to the selection of repertoire used at WNC and groups they will bring in. I’m not linking to this performance because I don’t care to promote it since I was so turned off by it. I wanted to hear the original Widor since I don’t remember ever hearing Benjamin play that, and I wanted to hear him play it in its entirety uninterrupted. Just as I’ve never heard him play Henri Mulet’s Tu es petra and would like to hear him play that, but the original piece without Big Band music inserted.

On this same day at the morning Liturgy, I didn’t understand why there was a need for smokey Jazz Night Club style music to be a part of the Liturgy. What would have been Benjamin’s Organ Prelude was replaced with jazz works on spirituals performed by the WNC Jazz Night ClubTM (they were parked in the Quire area) complete with a female singer wearing conformist and conservative hearse-black and ashtray gray clothing — you know, the latest shallow moda/fashion fad that “everyone is wearing” in order to “fit in” — and she was dancing in place with rotating shoulder movements (think: Helen Reddy). There was more from the WNC Jazz Night ClubTM during Communion later in the same Liturgy. This is all part of WNC’s scheme of “changing the music programme” (to appeal to US Pop Culture?) that you can read more about in the links below. Chau.—el barrio rosa

If you’d like to watch/hear the original Widor Toccata being played on the Great Organ at WNC, here is organist James Kennerley performing it (back in 2012). This is the way it should be played:


A change of venue to Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris (November 2016): Organ Improvisation by Philippe Lefebvre (Organist at Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris)

Washington National Cathedral: Trying to appeal to US Pop Culture ?

Is it an Anglican cathedral or a Jazz Night Club? (Washington National Cathedral)

Southern Baptist Revival Music at Washington National Cathedral ? (Organist Benjamin Straley)

Why Didn’t They Hire A GLBTQ Dean At Washington National Cathedral?

4 comments on “A Tacky Big Band Widor Toccata at Washington National Cathedral (Organist Benjamin Straley)

  1. DC Resident

    Off topic. Went to their website which says they’re having a veteran’s day concert with the Marine Band and the Cathedral Choir. They said this event had “reached capacity” and it was about thanking those who had served our country. This is mixing politics and religion. That’s not right. What happened to the separation of church and state in the U.S.? Like my wise vetaran dad used to say every veteran’s day – “they lie to us and tell us it’s about serving our country when it’s about serving their military agenda. They feed us lies about the reasons for going killing 1,0000s of people and the ripping off of other nations and their natural resources.”
    This is another feel-good service to justify the military war agenda.

    Thanks for letting me say this.

  2. Wes in Arlington - GLBTQ

    That sounds FUBAR, and to think I was planning to go up there sometime this month to hear Benjamin live. I think St. Paul’s K Street would be a better bet and it’s also closer to me.

Fin. The End.