Herbert Howells – Rhapsody No. 1 in D Flat Major (Cathedral Organist Benjamin Straley), and Cathedral Singers of 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.

This article is about my favourite organist, Benjamin Straley (Cathedral Organist and Associate Director of Music), and the Cathedral Singers at Washington National Cathedral (WNC). WNC is a cathedral church of the worldwide Anglican Communion, in the District of Columbia, en los Estados Unidos/in the United States.

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. 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. Well, we have some excellent music here. For his Organ Prelude on the Eleventh Sunday of Pentecost 2016, Benjamin played the Rhapsody No. 1 in D Flat Major by the Anglican composer Herbert Howells. Howells is my favourite Anglican composer. I especially like Howells’s Gloucester Service (composed for the Choir and acoustics of Gloucester Anglican Cathedral), St Paul’s Service (composed for the Choir and acoustics of St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral) and the anthem “I love all beauteous things,” the latter being rarely performed which is a shame really. It’s such a beautiful anthem. The Rhapsody No. 1 in D Flat Major is at the very beginning of the first video below, the beginning of the piece slightly cut off by production. You’ll notice that the toe and thumb pistons get almost as much work as the manuals/keyboards. He was frequently busy while playing this piece. It’s not a piece one can just “relax and play” on the manuals and pedals because the registration work is very important here. Production didn’t have the filter turned on to remove the hiss while he was playing the Howells. They finally got the message for the Introit.

The Introit for this Liturgy was “Blessed are the pure in heart” by the Anglican composer H. Walford Davies and that was beautifully sung by the Cathedral Singers. I have to admit I was disappointed to see the Cathedral Singers listed on the service leaflet because they have not been one of my favourite choral ensembles due to their fluttery/wobbling vibrato soprano section, which I’ve complained about many times. Almost as often as I’ve complained about production showing stained-glass windows when they should be showing the musicians who are performing at the time. Fortunately the boy and girl choristers sing without vibrato, so I don’t understand why the sopranos of the Cathedral Singers use vibrato. That really makes no sense to me. Michael likes that sound, does he? Oh well! I think it sounds awful — it sounds unrefined and amateurish and I don’t think that’s their intent — and when they really get going with their fluttering/wobbling I’ve noticed that sometimes the Men of the Cathedral Choir turn on vibrato too (in sympathy?) so they’re all wobbling together. That’s when I have to fast-forward to the next piece in the Liturgy. I’ve often thought: Why don’t they just change the name of the group to the Cathedral Opera Chorus and be done with it if they are so adamant about using annoying vibrato?! But back to this performance of their Introit: It was beautiful. I was rather blown away by it considering how I’ve felt about them in the past. Mostly a new group of choristers and maybe that’s the reason for this positive change. I love their tenor section with this particular group. I also realised that considering there was no vibrato from the soprano section for the Introit that they are able to turn off that god-awful vibrato when they want to, unless they enjoy sounding like your average amateurish church choir with wobbling voices that typically rehearses on Thursday night (you know what I’m talking about). But you know, I really don’t think that’s how they want to be thought of or what they’re striving for. They should be expected to be of the caliber of the exquisite Trinity Choir at Trinity Wall Street or the superb Choir of Men and Boys at St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. I also enjoyed the Communion Anthem, “Love, Life” and that piece was vibrato-free too, fortunately. That was a more “contemporary,” piece composed by Gary Davison. For this Liturgy, there were a few guys (at least 1 bass, 2 tenors and one counter-tenor) from the Cathedral Choir who are also in the Cathedral Singers, but most of the women were new. It was a better group of choristers, in my opinion.

The cantor for this Liturgy has an excellent voice and superb diction. She’s also one of the choristers from the highly-regarded Washington Bach Consort Chorus in the District.

For the Introit, it was lovely the way the Chorus carried over the phrasing on the word “throne” to the word “chooseth” without taking a breath, although that may be something that only a choral person such as myself would notice. And I even heard the final “t” of the word “heart” even though it was very quiet. I’ve listened to this many times (it’s too short). It’s very soothing and I’ve enjoyed it very much.

And as always, I thoroughly enjoyed our Benjamin’s organ improvisation during Communion. He consistently sets the mood perfectly. It was beautiful, peaceful and reminded me of Debussy.

Now the camera crew — apparently not being trained musicians — unfortunately seemed to keep getting bored with the Cathedral Singers so production chose to disrespect them by sending us off to gaze at more stained glass windows again. (Sigh.) That does get so tiresome. They must wrongly assume they have no repeat viewers. We saw those three windows that are together how many times during this Liturgy? I lost count. Of course, if it were a priest speaking, that camera would be locked in on the priest speaking. Period, no wandering off to look at windows. But unfortunately, musicians don’t often get the same respect as priests. But aren’t most people there for the music and for the rituals and the “theatre” of the Anglican Liturgy? I think so. That’s why I’m there and according to their video view count that’s the reason other people are there too. For example, their full-Liturgy videos get thousands of views as opposed to the Homily/Sermon videos which only get a couple of hundred views. So that would seem to say that people are not there or watching online for the Homily particularly. I should point out that stained glass windows can be shown during the Homily and at other non-musical times but of course they wouldn’t dream of doing that! I think they’re trying to emulate some of the pathetic and annoying camera techniques now used by the BBC in their videos of state ceremonies/Liturgies from St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in London, for example. Don’t emulate poor techniques of the BBC, por favor. They are not what they used to be at the BBC.

Speaking of Herbert Howells, you might enjoy Howells’s Collegium Regale Communion Service he composed for the Chapel and Choir of King’s College Cambridge (it’s the second video below). It’s performed by the excellent Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge (England) conducted by Stephen Layton. This Office of Holy Communion Service (Collegium Regale) by Howells is one my favourites. I especially like the Te Deum where Howells did some text painting on the text “are most High in the Glory of God the Father.” On the word “High” he has the soprano section lift up to a high A Flat, hold it and soar that note throughout the Chapel. It’s glorious! This Chorus has a very good tenor section too. It’s not a traditional Anglican Choir of Men and Boys (or Girls), and I haven’t listened to any other performances of this Communion setting in awhile and I didn’t take the time to search for any. They use this Communion setting at St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on occasion during the school year when the trebles are there. I played this performance for mi amigo/my friend who likes the choral music of Howells, especially the Gloucester Service. He enjoyed it very much. He asked me: “Why don’t they use that at WNC? That would be so much better than what they do now.” Yes, it would, I agree. Don’t let me get started on that. But I will anyway: They are not into (Festal) Choral Eucharists at WNC unfortunately. I don’t know why exactly, but I can take a guess. I think they (Michael McCarthy?) would consider a Choral Eucharist too High Church, and we can’t have that you know! I think our Benjamin would strongly support a Choral Eucharist. That’s what they do at St Thomas Fifth Avenue where their renowned Choir of Men and Boys perform a Mass setting (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, etc) written by an Anglican composer every Domingo/Sunday during the school year. They also have a Choral Eucharist every Domingo/Sunday morning at Grace Cathedral here in San Francisco. A Choral Eucharist requires more preparation from the Choir — they have to re-prepare or learn a new Communion Service — than the way WNC currently does it. The girl choristers at WNC could easily do a Communion Service every Sunday, even if the boys couldn’t.

I sometimes get the sense that there’s a lack of appreciation or even a lack of interest in the music at WNC from the non-musicians there. They don’t even bother to put the name of their Organist on the service leaflet. And who was the splendid guest organist on Pentecost and for the Liturgy on 28 de agosto de 2016/the 28th of August 2016? Who knows?! Whereas the opposite is the case at St Thomas Church in Manhattan. They are very, very respectful there and take the greatest pride in their music — as they should since it’s of the highest caliber — which is a very different approach than the approach taken by WNC. In my opinion, the two best church choirs in New York City are the St Thomas Choir of Men and Boys and The Trinity Choir of Trinity Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. Both are exquisite.

For their service music at WNC, they’re currently using John Rutter’s Song of Praise for the Gloria, which is alright, but it’s certainly not a grand and glorious Howells’s Gloria by any means. And for the Sanctus and Benedictus they’re using an “American folk melody.” That too is sufficient. The average person can get through it or rather stand and mumble it as they usually do, but that too doesn’t compare to the Sanctus of the Howells’s Collegium Regale Communion Service, for example.

At WNC, everyone, well, correction, the Choir and priests sing the parts of the mass setting in unison. The resident congregation mostly stands and sing-mumbles it and most of the tourists don’t even try because it’s their first time there. Just look at them in the videos to confirm that (sitting in the rear of the Nave). They stand with their arms folded or stand like the congregation staring straight ahead or silently looking at the service leaflet. Some of them look like they don’t have a clue where they are. The problem with having the congregation sing the mass setting/service music is that I suspect most of the congregation does not read music and the same for the tourists. There’s no time to rehearse these little pieces, so the resident congregation likely just learns these pieces “by ear” after hearing the piece week after week. For the tourists, it’s the first time they’ve heard them assuming they don’t watch the videos or attend a church where they use the same music. The service music they use is relatively simple so that the congregation can handle it as opposed to a musically-advanced and glorious Office of Holy Communion – Collegium Regale setting by Herbert Howells, for example.

Don’t most people go to a cathedral to hear glorious music? I think so. That’s why I would go. A cathedral church is where I expect to hear glorious music of the highest caliber (and our Benjamin certainly achieves that!). Do most people go to a cathedral to take an active role in the Liturgy? I don’t think so. I think most people go to a cathedral church to be passive and just sit or stand and observe. And the WNC videos confirm that too. That’s why the camera shows most people at WNC just standing and silent (some pretending to sing), even during the hymns and mass settings. I don’t think that most people have an interest in actively taking part. They’re being forced to take part because WNC does not have a (Festal) Choral Eucharist. Speaking of a lack of participation, most people don’t even bow to the processional crosses — how difficult is it to bow? — if they even know they’re supposed to do that! And no one other than our Benjamin genuflects at Low Church WNC.

As for a (Festal) Choral Eucharist or High Mass at WNC, I would guess that someone (perhaps Michael?) has said: No Choral Eucharist here. This is Low Church WNC. We/Michael the Choirmaster reject High Church here (other than a few times a year as token). In fact, they’re planning to become even Lower Church with a change in the music here in the future you might be interested to know.

In my opinion, most people who attend the Liturgy at WNC are there for “the show” and to say they’ve been to WNC, especially the tourists, who are most likely only there for one Sunday. What I’ve heard locals say about Grace Cathedral (Anglican Communion) here in San Francisco is: “Oh they put on a good show up there with their Choir of Men and Boys, the cathedral organ and their Anglican Cathedral anthems make it seem more High Church than it really it.” But I get the sense that WNC is gradually trying to do what many other churches have done and that’s dumb-down the music to the lowest common denominator so they’re going in the opposite direction of a Choral Eucharist. Which brings me to this:

WNC’s New Marketing Slogans

“A House of Prayer For All People” and “This Is Your Washington National Cathedral.”

I’m turned off by marketing stuff especially when it comes from churches. It’s so transparent. They’re using the marketing slogan that WNC is “a house of prayer for all people 1.” (that came from the Bishop in the District). From what I read, I see they’re planning to change the music. (You don’t know how absolutely thrilled I am to hear that! – sarcasm intended.)

Gospel, jazz and “global song” in an Anglican cathedral? Oh here we go! Any plans for evangelical and pentecostal Praise Bands too?

I’ve done some research on how christian churches have dumbed-down over the years and tried to give themselves a “makeover” in order to increase their attendance. From what I read, changing the music has not worked with most churches. It’s been a “massive failure.” That’s the language one article I read used to describe the results with most churches, including bringing in Praise Bands. Haven’t they researched this at WNC to know this? I can understand why it’s been a “massive failure.” Just like with a millionaire Democratic or Republican corporate politician who only works for his/her corporate owners, a church cannot be “all things to all people.” It does not work. That’s why there are different denominations of churches to begin with, and with Anglican churches they are Low and a few are High, and some are in between. But I think most are Low today, so there’s no shortage of Low churches out there for people to go to if that’s what they want, but the music they’re planning to bring in will make WNC even more Low Church than they already are. So why would they do that? It seems to me that WNC needs to be true to themselves as Anglicans and stop this “everything is happy and wonderful here” impression they like to give, and stop trying to be all things to all people in the name of dinero/money and that’s what this is about, as is the case with all churches. Making money. The cathedral like any church is a business despite all the syrupy god talk, prayer and other sweet words, such as “this is your Washington National Cathedral.” Yeah sure it is.

A Jazz Evensong Might Work, But Anything Other Than That…

As for the music, they will be inviting in a jazz group. And I assume it’s Andy Barnett’s group (Theodicy Jazz Collective). He’s one of the new priests there and he’s also a musician. From seeing him in their videos, he seems like a really nice guy so I mean this as no offence or disrespect to him or his group, Theodicy Jazz Collective. TJC has previously made at least one appearance at WNC already for a special Liturgy and as of this writing the videos of their performances of that appearance have less than 200 views, similar to the Homily videos. His group has also appeared for a Liturgy at Trinity Wall Street with the superb Trinity Choir (see last video below). I’ve listened to some of the music from Andy’s group and I like it. It’s the style of jazz I like. But I would not use it in an Anglican Liturgy just as I wouldn’t use my favourite (and now-disband) Pat Metheny Group with Pedro Aznar in an Anglican Liturgy. There’s a clash of styles. They’d have to consider changing the Liturgy name to the “Sunday Morning Jazz Club here at Washington National Cathedral.” While watching their performance at Trinity Wall Street, during the Kyrie of the Canterbury Jazz Mass, I thought the only thing missing was cocktail tables with drinks, ashtrays and cigarette smoke creating a smokey jazz club effect. I guess the cigarette smoke would replace incense, no?

When I think of jazz, I don’t think of cassocks, surplices or the Anglican or Cathedral Cycles of Prayer, do you? Jazz would be fine for a special Liturgy dedicated especially to jazz, or gospel or “global song.” Make it its own Liturgy on the odd occasion. Such as a Jazz Evensong. I don’t know if they’re still doing it but every Pascua/Easter afternoon at Grace Cathedral here in San Francisco they had a Jazz Evensong (an annual event). That was nice and interesting. But it was only once a year.

When people come to an Anglican cathedral they expect to hear Anglican Cathedral Music, the Great Organ and the Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys and/or Girls. If they wanted anything other than that, they would go to some other parish church or another christian denominations. But from my research, people are not going elsewhere to get what someone else has remade themselves into in order to try to be all things to all people. (roll eyes)

I see they’ve added two new names to the service leaflet at WNC, but our Benjamin’s name still remains missing. That’s how much they think of the music. They don’t even think of him, apparently! Yet he’s the most important part of the Liturgy as far as I’m concerned. Without him and his expertise at the Great Organ, the Liturgy would be rather lame. When Benjamin was off for two weeks, they typed the name of the guest organist on the service leaflet. But when Benjamin served as Choirmaster they failed to indicate who the guest organist was and failed to indicate that Benjamin was serving as guest Choirmaster. Then the same musician who had served as guest organist on the Day of Pentecost served as guest Choirmaster on 14 de agosto/14 August 2016, but they didn’t acknowledge him on the service leaflet. Whoever does the service leaflet at WNC types the pieces that the (guest) organist told them he is going to play but they can’t seem to go down to the bottom of the service leaflet and type his name. They have such disregard for the musicians at WNC and that does explain why they enjoy giving attention to stained glass windows when the camera should be on the musicians. Chau.—el barrio rosa

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1. Regarding this “house of prayer for all people” marketing slogan: That would imply they welcome anti-gay bigots and other prejudiced and bigoted people at WNC. Because “all people” includes prejudiced and bigoted people and the worst people in our society. Does the Bishop really mean that? A “house of prayer for all people” sounds warm and fuzzy, sweet and nice as a marketing slogan, but why would she want bigots and other bad people there? When you start “welcoming all people” problems arise. The prejudiced and bigoted people are often rabid. They have their agenda and will try to change what you’re doing, and often that’s the type of people who achieve their goals. They’re the ones who “win,” because others — they usually call themselves a “liberal” — give in to them in the name of “compromise.” Ugh. In politics, it means that the conservatives/right-wing get their way every time. With people like that, they’re not about to change their prejudiced and bigoted thinking no matter how many Homilies they hear or how many times they pray. We’ve seen this over and over. For example, I’ve seen gay areas of cities “welcome the ‘straights.’” Why do “straight” people have any interest in being in a gay area unless they’re closet cases? The conservatives (who despise gay areas) call it being “inclusive” and “welcoming diversity” — when in reality they’ve had no interest at all in being “inclusive” or “welcoming diversity” before now — and what happens? What happens when the welcome mat is put out for the “straights” is that they take over the gay areas after GLBTQs have fixed them up nicely. They force GLBTQs out of their own barrios/neighbourhoods/meccas in the name of “diversity.” That’s happened in San Francisco’s Castro and in West Hollywood. And from what I’ve read it’s also happened in the District. The gay area in the District is no longer Dupont Circle as it was when I lived there. It’s now the Logan Circle area. GLBTQs have been shoved East. So, are they going to welcome the anti-gay and anti-women priests bigoted Orthodox Anglicans also to WNC? They are in the category of “all people.” I suggest they re-think this. WNC should be a cathedral church proudly in the Anglican tradition not trying to be like or emulate any other christian denomination or abandoning their roots, like some other churches do in the name of dinero/money. “A house of prayer for all people” to me sounds the same as the Inclusive CardTM, and in this case that’s the same as watering down who you are. Another marketing slogan I’ve heard some of the priests say in their welcome before the Liturgy begins is, “This is your Washington National Cathedral.” Oh, por favor. Yeah, sure it is! Again, that sounds good but it’s not based in reality. If you or I went in there and tried to change something with the Liturgy in our WNC, I suspect we would be met with resistance, no matter how often we said in response: “But you just said this is our WNC, and this is what I’d like to do differently here in my WNC.” Good luck with that. By the way, they’re also using that latter marketing slogan at the Cathedral Church of St John The Divine in Manhattan (Anglican Communion). Perhaps they’re using that throughout the Anglican Communion.

Herbert Howells/The Office of Holy Communion (Collegium Regale Service)

Canterbury Jazz Mass/Kyrie – Music at Trinity Wall Street – The Trinity Choir

4 comments on “Herbert Howells – Rhapsody No. 1 in D Flat Major (Cathedral Organist Benjamin Straley), and Cathedral Singers of Washington National Cathedral

  1. D8

    Finally had the chance to watch this. I’m an atheist but enjoyed it. Very interesting service. Relaxing, peaceful and calming. That organ sends chills up my spine.

    1. Former San Franciscan

      I feel the same. I’m not religious but I’m drawn to the high church liturgies. There’s just something about them that strongly appeals to me. As a longtime reader I’ve come to expect that these articles on pink barrio are never about god or religion and never about trying to convert somebody even though they’re about Anglican churches. People can get in serious arguments over religion and I avoid that but it would be hard to get in any argument over these articles because they’re not about that. These articles celebrate music and musicians and exposes me to music I haven’t heard before. A refreshing approach which to me makes them enjoyable to read.

  2. Wes in Arlington

    Like you, I like jazz. I hadn’t heard that the PMG is not around any more….sorry to hear that.

    Jazz or Gospel at WNC? No, not that. I wouldn’t support that idea. I’ve not heard of a Jazz Evensong but that sounds like the best place to have jazz, if they must. I wouldn’t be too hot on it anywhere else….especially for the Sunday morning services.

    As for “our Benjamin”, he’s a real treasure to WNC.

  3. David in Breuckelen

    Enjoyed Benjamin’s playing of the Howells and like you said the Introit was beautiful.

    TrinityWall Street doesn’t have a Choral Eucharist either – seems like a waste of talent and resources considering the Trinity Choir sitting there. They wouldn’t have to do the same thing every Sunday. TWS and WNC could have a Choral Eucharist every other week. Agree w/ you that a CE makes the liturgy seem higher….which I like. I’m also high church.

Fin. The End.