Benjamin Straley Kicks Organ Ass with St Cecilia (Washington National Cathedral)

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.

Saint Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians. Her feast day is celebrated in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox traditions on November 22.

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

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. You don’t dare move the camera from a priest when s/he is speaking. Well Benjamin deserves the same respect as does your Cathedral Choir. Are you really that bored by watching your own musicians? There’s plenty of time during the Homily or before the organ prelude or after the Liturgy to show scenes of the cathedral (I’m referring to your obsession with the stained-glass windows; it’s really a turn-off). Muchas gracias.

Hola a todos. First, I’d like to briefly mention the Liturgy on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (14 de agosto 2016/the 14th of August 2016). Español at Washington National Cathedral (WNC)! Yes, it was a bilingual Liturgy en español y inglés/English with priority given to español. Excelente. So for example, The Gospel was first read en español followed by inglés/English. Muchísimas gracias to WNC for doing this. (You know, I can just imagine that the foaming-at-the-mouth redneck “English only” crowd who absolutely fear international languages was seething with anger. Tough luck. A bilingual Liturgy doesn’t happen that often so I think they should be able to deal with it on this occasion. And within camera view I saw no one that showed any objection to it. As I’ve written before, experienced classically-trained musicians are exposed to and work with a variety of world languages (especially Italiano) on a regular basis. We don’t fear other international languages. Bigots do that; closed-minded prejudiced people do that. Related: The Amazing Benefits of Being Bilingual). And our Benjamin’s improvisation following The Gospel readings was aaaaaaah, SASSY! I loved it! High Church! I felt like I was at St Thomas Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Muchas gracias to him for that and also for his excellent Fanfare to the processional hymn. Really wonderful playing from him. His playing for this Liturgy reminded me of how he played when he was first hired (gloriously High Church), where he didn’t have someone trying to suppress him into Low Church. Ugh. His playing moved me; it brought tears to my eyes at one point during the processional hymn where he played his High Church interlude (was that the 64′ I heard nicely rumbling the Nave?). After playing like that one feels like one has been to church, even if one is not religious. He seemed to be surviving the heat. It’s been really hot in the District the past days. The Introit was beautifully sung by the Cathedral Singers, and fortunately no vibrato from the soprano section – good! The Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys/Girls will return after Labour Day when the Cathedral School and St Albans School for Boys open for the Fall term. For the past 2-3 Domingos/Sundays they have had some lovely new tenor voices. The Cathedral Singers consists of some of the superb choristers of the Washington Bach Consort Chorus. As of this writing, that’s as far as I’ve gotten in the Liturgy. It would be nice to know the name of the guy who served as Choirmaster for this Liturgy. He looked like the same guy that I wrote about and who served as organist (he’s a superb organist) on the the Day of Pentecost. And why is our Benjamin’s name still missing from the service leaflet? (Sigh). With all other parishes and cathedral churches I’ve experienced, the names of the Organist and Choirmaster are permanently on the service leaflet. By not doing so, WNC implies that the musicians are not important which is also the sense they give with their camera work where they park on stained-glass windows, columns, las flores/flowers baskets and anything else except what they should be showing: The Cathedral Choir that’s performing at the time, or Benjamin who is improvising during Communion, for example.

Now back to the Tenth Sunday of Pentecost, the last hymn they sang for this Liturgy was the hymn tune St Cecilia. Our Benjamin played it beautifully, very legato and he improvised interludes between each verse which gave it a more High Church feel. It was lovely. The interludes also served the purpose of lengthening the hymn to accommodate the procession. I enjoyed his full and lush registration. It was rather glorious, I thought. Then for his organ voluntary he improvised on the same hymn tune (St Cecilia). That was spectacular. I thought his improvisation was as fine as any respected and time-honoured organ work of the French organ repertoire (Louis Vierne, for example). It had aspects of a French toccata in it, and as I’ve written before, I sense he likes toccatas and/or the “toccata style” (so do I). Many times while listening to his improvisation and while watching him play it in order to analyse it, the piece brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat, especially the (what I call) “French Organ Symphony” middle section. That’s what it reminded me of. It was definitely a High Church improvisation. His “in the moment” piece began with broken chords/arpeggio type material in various keys. He really briefly set out/established the keys he would be using for the piece at the beginning of the improvisation. Then, in French toccata style, the hymn tune entered in the pedals in octaves before going into the middle section. The middle section was mostly in the key of d minor before he modulated to B Major for a bit and then returned to G Major for the final section. The middle section was my favourite part as it felt more — like I said earlier — like part of a French Organ Symphony at that point because of the harmonies he used (d minor and then to B Major). In the final section, he played the melody line again in the right-hand and briefly answered that in the pedals in octaves. It was a relatively short improvisation. It didn’t end as one might expect it to. It had more of a theatre organ “sound”/ending with some dissonant chords. Our Benjamin kicked organ ass (smile…LOL) with this piece. After hearing this superb improvisation, it makes me wonder why anyone would want anything else (such as podunk Low Church music) when one can have this type of High Church piece improvised by one of the finest organists around.

You know, I sense that our Benjamin’s service music playing would be mostly of a High Church nature if he were allowed to be himself and play as he wanted and not suppressed by a certain person there. I’m specifically thinking of the Choirmaster. I remember awhile back one of my commenters asked, “Can’t we send Michael back to England?” Suggesting he’s the problem. I do think our Benjamin is being suppressed and I say that based on how Benjamin played when he was first hired. He was most definitely a High Church organist then (without a doubt) and his playing was absolutely glorious! I was delighted they had hired him. He still plays beautifully of course, but I hope you understand what I mean. Today, I think he’s being suppressed. The original High Church Benjamin is still there and appears at times — when he’s allowed to? — such as in this superb improvisation on this hymn tune.

Also, muchísimas gracias to la producción for keeping the camera on Benjamin the entire time he was playing his improvisation rather than losing interest and wandering off to look at stained glass windows, which happened earlier in the Liturgy. It looks like la producción has installed a wider-angled lens — which is very nice; a nice improvement — on the camera at the organ console and we’re able to see a little more of our Benjamin while he’s playing.

I suggest readers watch/listen to the processional hymn first which begins at 1.25.38 in the first video below to get the hymn tune “in your ear” if you don’t already know St Cecilia and then watch his improvisation which follows immediately, instead of just going to the improvisation. Chau.—el barrio rosa

Service Leaflet: Tenth Sunday of Pentecost (July 24, 2016)

Bilingual Liturgy:

3 comments on “Benjamin Straley Kicks Organ Ass with St Cecilia (Washington National Cathedral)

  1. D8

    A very creative improvisation. Very enjoyable. I’m one that enjoys your music articles the most.

Fin. The End.