Improvisation-Toccata on Hyfrydol (Organist Benjamin Straley)

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.

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 a todos. On the Seventh Sunday of Easter at Washington National Cathedral in the District, Benjamin improvised for the organ voluntary at the end of the Liturgy. The final processional hymn was the well-known Anglican hymn Hyfrydol, so our Benjamin chose to improvise on the same hymn tune. You can hear his “Acid Rock” (smile) improvisation on Hyfrydol beginning at 1.26.00 in the video below. He called it “Improvisation on Hyfrydol” on the service leaflet. I’m adding the word “toccata” to it because it was more like a toccata especially with part of the melody in the pedals at times. If you listen closely (and perhaps more than once), you’ll hopefully hear parts of Hyfrydol throughout in some form or another although sometimes he didn’t make it obvious (because of his harmonic changes) and you really have to listen for it, but it’s there. And small parts of his improvisation reminded me of an Organ Symphony (maybe Vierne?). It was a very virtuosic improvisation. I enjoyed it. I doubt you’ve ever heard Hyfrydol like this before.

For his organ voluntaries, on occasion our Benjamin improvises in toccata style. Like myself, I sense he likes toccatas. One of my favourites is the toccata Tu es Petra by the French composer Henri Mulet which you can watch beginning at 01.11.10 in this video at this link performed by Dr Jeremy Filsell, Artist in Residence at WNC. Jeremy played this for his organ voluntary one Domingo/Sunday back in the Summer of 2012. Note: I’ll leave that link here although I couldn’t get it to work. The video has not been deleted (it’s still listed in their archives); it just won’t play.

My only complaint about this was not about our Benjamin but rather with production. Production at WNC is getting very annoying at times. It is really too much to ask that production give the same respect to the musical artists that they give to the priests? Production wouldn’t dream of disrespecting the priests when they’re speaking by not having the camera on him or her from their first words and for the entire time they’re speaking. But they think nothing of disrespecting the musicians and treating them as if they’re just “background music.” And that’s the approach they took (for example) during the 8 May 2016 Liturgy in the video below where the trebles of the Cathedral Choir began their Communion Anthem. But viewers were stuck looking at a stained-glass window when the boys made their entrance. You didn’t know whether you were listening to a CD or what, since they treated the music as background. Then the camera fleetingly showed the boys but then we were sent back to look at a stained glass window. Sigh. Do they not understand that singing is speaking on tones/musical notes, so how is singing any different than when a priest is speaking? If that had been the priest speaking, the camera would have been on the priest the entire time, from his or her’s first words. And frankly, I personally think that singers are more interesting to watch than someone speaking. For Benjamin’s Improvisation-Toccata, the camera should have stayed on Benjamin from beginning to end because he was performing, and it was his own piece/improvisation/composition.

La producción/production have changed their style and they’re unfortunately doing more of what turned me off from watching the liturgies at Trinity Wall Street (TWS). When one is sitting in the Cathedral and when the musicians (the Cathedral Choir of Men and Boy/Girls and our Benjamin) are performing one’s eyes should be on them and not off looking at windows, columns or the ceiling. People who are not into the music or who have a short attention span do that, so perhaps some of the crew are not into the music there at WNC. It’s the same complaint I had with TWS, and inept is the best way to describe their camera crew at TWS. WNC used to have a superb camera crew — I never had any complaints about them — and they stayed focused on the Liturgical aspects, rather than the building. But that has changed, unfortunately. Here’s an idea: They could create a page on their website of all of their stained glass windows and viewers can go to that page and look at all the windows for as long as they want if their attention span is too short for watching the musicians. (Although I would think that the attention span for looking at windows would be even less.) Like at Trinity Wall Street, I get the distinct impression that production thinks that the musicians are boring to watch. Not to me they’re not. That’s one of the reasons I’m watching your Liturgies to begin with! I have another suggestion: Why not do a virtual tour of the Nave during each Homily (except for the Bishop’s/Interim Dean’s Homily). You have plenty of time during each Homily to show every stained glass window in the Cathedral (depending upon how long you park on each one), show the Nave and Transepts in detail and the chapels as well. You could even go outside and go up to the top of the Cathedral and show us a panoramic view of the District from up there. That would be pretty, provided it’s a clear day. You can show the priest occasionally — as a quick reminder of who’s giving the Homily — but do an in-depth tour for the entire length of the Homily. (Yeah right, I’m sure we’ll never see that.)

Well, back to our Benjamin and his excellent Improvisation-Toccata on Hyfrydol which begins at 1.26.00 in the video below. I enjoyed it and thought maybe you would too.

If you’re not Anglican — although from my understanding the hymn appears in the hymnal of many other christian denominations today — and do not know the hymn Hyfrydol (“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”), you might want to listen to that first to help you hear the hymn tune in his superb improvisation. The processional hymn (Hyfrydol) begins at 1.15.54 in the first video below. Chau.—el barrio rosa

And you can hear more from our Benjamin here. This is his organ recital (Navidad 2015). I love his Latin-coloured socks. During his performance, at one point he talked a little bit about the pieces on the programme, which is a good idea. It helps the audience get to know the artist a little bit better and to get a better feel for him. He was very gracious, and seemed very humble and modest (the ideal artist in my opinion):

3 comments on “Improvisation-Toccata on Hyfrydol (Organist Benjamin Straley)

  1. Mike

    I have to say Benjamin’s playing moves me beyond words. I watch on line from the UK. The improvisiation was superb, the hymn playing of Hyfrodol even more so- just look at the smile on one of the gentlemen of the choir after one particular firework at the start of the first verse!
    His is a wonderful talent, enhancing the worship so much and I just cannot wait until November when I have booked to go out and listen to him live, and please God, have the chance to meet a clearly very specially talented human being
    The Cathedral is much much richer for having him

  2. Wes in Arlington

    I understand your complaints about production. But they do a really nice job of recording the cathedral organ. I’ve heard that organ music is difficult to record but they seem to have mastered it. Sounds very realistic in the videos. Cool improvisation from Benjamin.

    1. rosa_barrio Post author

      Hola Wes,

      “But they do a really nice job of recording the cathedral organ.”

      Yes they do. It sounds as if you’re right there in the cathedral. Gracias. Chau.

Fin. The End.