Benjamin Straley’s improvisation on Mit Freuden zart

Update 2017: 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 my favourite organist, Benjamin Straley, the superb Cathedral Organist and Assistant Director of Music, at Washington National Cathedral (WNC) in the District of Columbia. WNC is a cathedral church of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

An orange flower in the pink barrio

Una flor naranja

First, a request to production: Can you kindly please keep the camera on Benjamin when he’s playing his organ voluntaries and Communion improvisations? He deserves the same respect given the priests when they’re speaking. There’s plenty of time during the Homily or Baptism or before and after the Liturgy to show scenes of the cathedral. Muchas gracias.

El 24 de septiembre de 2013. Hola. I meant to write about this before now. I enjoyed the organ voluntary/improvisation at Washington National Cathedral (Anglican Communion) on el 1 de septiembre for the principal liturgy. Benjamin Straley, Assistant Organist, played for the liturgy and he played an organ piece by Gerre Hancock listed on the service leaflet. But then he had time remaining before the Choral Introit and he improvised on the processional hymn (Tune: Mit Freuden zart, Text: Sing praise to God who reigns above). He began his beautiful improvisation with a little bit of the Hancock he had just played and then we made his way into the hymn tune (Mit Freuden zart). He set the mood perfectly. I enjoyed it very much and thought you might. He is such a talented organist/artist and one can recognise when he’s playing because his playing is very fluid and smooth. His improvisation begins at 2.30 (two minutes and 30 seconds) in the video below:

As I wrote in this article about Benjamin, Washington National Cathedral (WNC) added incense recently to their principal liturgy (the 11.15 service). They also began singing the responses before and after The Gospel reading. My background is in the Anglo-Catholic church so I liked both changes. But, I get the feeling that they’re really not that into the changes, especially the incense. At first I thought these more Anglo-Catholic/High Church changes were coming from the Dean of the Cathedral. But after observing him (especially on el 22 de septiembre during the principal liturgy and specifically for the reading of The Gospel), I do not think he initiated the changes. He seems to be (very) Low Church. So I’m beginning to think now that these changes came from one of the Vergers (who temporarily served as Thurifer there for awhile), and the idea was approved by the Dean. The temporary Thurifer is very knowledgeable and well-trained at what he does. He’s one of the Vergers but he also did a good job as the Thurifer there for awhile. Then you have the priests, some who whom nearly jog around the free-standing altar to cense it, but the Thurifer takes his time and is respectful of his job. The Dean looked like he was having trouble holding the Thurible. Is it that heavy? (I don’t think so). When it’s time for the priests to use incense (such as at the reading of The Gospel), well, one is left with the feeling of: Why bother using incense at all if you’re going to rush through it (Gina), and as I said earlier some of the priests nearly run around the altar as if they can’t wait for the whole thing to be over. What exactly is the rush with incense? Do you think that if you spend a little bit more time censing the altar and Gospel with lots of incense and smoke—as if you actually care about what you’re doing and taking it seriously—that the congregation will start to walk out? Something tells me that they won’t do that, if that’s the concern. Because if the congregation will stay there and sit through your (sometimes lengthy) Homilies/sermons as they do, something tells me that they won’t walk out if you spend a little bit more time with the incense. I mean, other than for religious reasons many people come to this grand cathedral—or any grand cathedral—for a nice show, The Theatre, grand and glorious organ music (from Benjamin specifically) and choral music, and incense, so what’s the point of rushing through it?

And what’s with the acolytes and the crucifix and candles after the reading of The Gospel? When the acolytes take the crucifix/candles back out of sight before the Homily/sermon half the time the crucifix and candles look like they’re about to fall over because of the way they’re being carried (or miscarried) by the acolytes. They look all crooked, tilted and, well really tacky. Shouldn’t they remain upright (and not tilted) regardless? You’re still in the liturgy.


Also, I must ask: Is incense overly expensive these days? WNC seems very tight with it. They are more generous with incense at Trinity Church Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. I suspect they are quite generous with incense at St Thomas Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, but they have still not set up video webcasts of their liturgies so one can’t see what they’re doing or what’s going on. There’s another Anglican Church in Manhattan (no webcasts of any kind there) referred to as “Smokey Mary’s.” “The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin (fondly called “Smokey Mary’s”) is an Episcopal Anglo-Catholic church within the Episcopal Diocese of New York.” Let me assure you that WNC could never be compared to “Smokey Mary’s.” WNC is the opposite of “Smokey Mary’s” as far as the use of incense is concerned. But they could change that you know?

And suppose Benjamin played the organ the way the priests approach the incense? Ugh. You’d have a very different Liturgy.

For those who care, this is the way incense is supposed to be done. It’s quite a good video from Anglican Bishop Thomas Gordon:

Chau.—rosa barrio