Arts Review: Benjamin Straley’s Organ Voluntary: Improvisation-Toccata on ‘Salzburg’

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 the superb organist at Washington National Cathedral (a cathedral church of the Anglican Communion) in the District of Columbia in the US/Los Estados Unidos.

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.

Hola. One of my favourite organists, Benjamin Straley, is the organist at Washington National Cathedral (WNC) in the District. Occasionally for his organ voluntary he improvises. He’s an excellent improviser. I improvised occasionally for the final organ voluntary when I served as organist in Anglican parishes, although unfortunately I never had an organ as nice as the Great Organ at Washington National Cathedral. Like myself, I sense that Benjamin likes toccatas because his organ voluntary improvisations are often in toccata style. One of my favourite toccatas for organ is by the French composer Henri Mulet and his organ piece Tu es petra, which you can watch at the end of the Liturgy at that link performed by WNC artist-in-residence, Jeremy Filsell. I enjoy Jeremy’s playing.

For this Liturgy, our Benjamin played a brilliant — it also sounds very High Church to me — improvisation-toccata with at least a couple of recognisable themes in it, one of them being the final processional hymn (Tune: Salzburg). So in the first video below if you watch/listen to the final processional hymn (which begins at 1.14.34 in the video), you should hear that hymn tune (or variations on it) in his improvisation-toccata which immediately follows. This improvisation-toccata reminds me of a short Organ Symphony, and I hear a couple of measures of Louis Vierne in it (the French composer) from one of Vierne’s organ symphonies, especially when they show the stained glass window in the video. (I wish they would have kept the camera on Benjamin). Benjamin’s improvisation begins at 1.18.07 in the video below. As you’ll see in the video, he “works it.” (Related: Benjamin Straley Can Play The Shit Out of Organ Music). Along with artist-in-residence, Dr Jeremy Filsell, Benjamin is the best organist they’ve had at WNC in years, in my opinion.

Some observations about their Liturgy at WNC:

I noticed they have stopped chanting the responses before and after The Gospel reading and this happened before Lent began so I don’t think it’s connected with Lent. I would ask: “why?” but I think I already know the answer to that. I suspect some priest(s) complained about having to chant it. There is someone or a group of people at WNC that really push against anything that is in the category of “High Church.” Sigh. Don’t let me get started on this again. Moving on.

I also sense that Benjamin has been asked to play a subdued organ improvisation at the end of all Gospel readings because that’s what he’s been doing for sometime. But for Lent, there is no organ improvisation after The Gospel. There is silence instead. I remember he used to play — what I call — “grand and glorious” High Church fanfare-type improvisations after The Gospel reading in order to get the acolytes — they’re looking very polished and well-trained these days in the procession — and the gospeller back into the Sanctuary area and towards the High Altar, and I looked forward to those improvisations. But for sometime, Benjamin’s organ improvisations have been very subdued. I don’t think this is coincidental nor do I think it is of his choosing. I think he was asked to change his style. I enjoy all of his improvisations regardless of the style. I’m just annoyed that someone would allegedly ask him to change his style. Stop messing with the organist! You have the best cathedral organist you’ve had in decades and he knows more about this than you do! By comparison, at St Thomas Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, their organists use both styles. Sometimes the improvisation after The Gospel reading is “grand and glorious” High Church and other times it’s “meditative”/subdued. On this same Sunday at St Thomas (the Last Sunday after The Epiphany), the organist played a nice fanfare-type organ improvisation — the way Benjamin used to play — after The Gospel reading. It ended quietly but the ending was the only quiet part about it. Mi amigo/my friend listened to part of their Liturgy at St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue and said to me, “they seem to be more cemented in their style than other churches.” Yes, they do. They’re more consistent at St Thomas. I guess someone could say that WNC is now “consistent” in their subdued (Low Church) style.

So again, Benjamin’s Improvisation-Toccata at the end of this Liturgy begins at 1.18.07 in the video. I enjoyed it a lot. Very inspiring. Chau.—el barrio rosa

You can also enjoy Benjamin’s organ recital he gave at the end of 2015:

I like his Latin-coloured socks very much, which he wore for his recital. Very colourful and pretty.

The camerawork could have been better for this recital. I sense that the camera crew didn’t know the French organ works. There were pedal sections I would like to have seen but the camera didn’t show. When Diane Bish of The Joy of Music recorded the same works, she made sure her camera crew showed those pedal sections to the viewer. I often think that musicians would make the best camera people. In this instance, a well-trained organist having played the pieces ideally should have been directing the camera crew, but I realise that would be an ideal situation.

3 comments on “Arts Review: Benjamin Straley’s Organ Voluntary: Improvisation-Toccata on ‘Salzburg’

  1. Alejandro

    Hoooooooooooooola. Yes he is good and I know from studying piano that improvising is a special talent, not everybody can do it, esp like him!!! Like I’ve told you before, with your music articles and your knowledge about music, conservatory credit should be offered. :-) Muchas Gracias.


  2. Wes in Arlington

    Really, Really Excellent. I guess I’ll have to head up there one Sunday and hear him in person.

Fin. The End.