Update: Washington National Cathedral Organist 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 Washington National Cathedral (WNC), a cathedral church of the worldwide Anglican Communion, in the District of Columbia, and their superb Cathedral Organist and Associate Director of Music Benjamin Straley.
Hola a todos. Well, if you didn’t know any better, you might think you were walking into a jazz night club. The WNC Jazz Night ClubTM (that’s what I call it) began the Liturgy on the morning of the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, el 23 de octubre de 2016/the 23 of October 2016. Our Benjamin got bumped from playing an Organ Prelude in favour of an “Instrumental Prelude” from the WNC Jazz Night ClubTM ensemble. They played: By the Waters of Babylon, Balm in Gilead and Wade in the Water.
I suspect those visiting this Anglican cathedral church for the first time and expecting to hear an organ prelude such as Franck’s Choral No. 3 in a minor, for example, and a piece one would expect to hear in such a grand cathedral with the Great Organ, felt very disappointed and questioned whether they were in the right church when walking in and hearing what sounded like a smoke-filled jazz night club. How bazaar. I listened to a little bit of it. The music the WNC Jazz Night ClubTM ensemble played would be fine in one of the District’s sit-down bars and/or restaurants or for accompanying the renowned Alvin Ailey Dance Company down at the Kennedy Center for one of their pieces similar to their signature piece “Revelations.” But to me it was out-of-place for a Gothic Anglican cathedral setting, especially when the female vocalist started belting out her part — it was right out of a jazz night club complete with her dancing-in-place shoulder movements — while wearing conservative and conformist black and gray.
Oddly, WNC seems to be trying its best to be more like southern baptists and/or the christian denominations using praise bands today, for example, but just doing it a little bit differently using jazz/gospel music. The thing is, I don’t see those denominations trying to be more like Anglicans in their music. They’re going in the opposite direction with guitars, drums/percussion, keyboards and everyone singing into microphones. No, this seems to be only one-way as if the people running things at WNC are not fully comfortable being Anglicans, and prefer to be another “lower” christian denomination. Why don’t they just move their membership and become part of the clergy of those churches (southern baptists and others) if they prefer them over a church of the Anglican Communion? According to the service leaflet, there was more of this WNC Jazz Night ClubTM during Communion. Super. [sarcasm intended]. The Communion music presumably involved the Cathedral Choir of Men and Girls (or what for some reason they’re now calling “The Girls Cathedral Choir” which completely fails to acknowledge the Men of the Choir singing behind the girls).
Since I got turned off by all this, I didn’t watch the Liturgy. Just wondering whether they used incense to give the full-effect of a smoke-filled jazz night club? Although upon reflection, as little incense as they use when they do use incense on the odd occasion, it wouldn’t have made any difference anyway. It certainly wouldn’t have given the effect of a smoke-filled jazz night club.
So I skipped to the end of the Liturgy to our Benjamin’s Organ Voluntary which was Johann Sebastian Bach’s Fugue in G major (the ‘Gigue’). There’s no place to rest in that Baroque dance piece and of course he played it well. And he looked like he was enjoying himself. You can watch him play the Bach at 1.37.35 in the video at the bottom of this article.
The Installation of the new Dean with Jazz/Big Band Music in the middle of the Widor Toccata. WTF?
The WNC Jazz Night ClubTM ensemble also performed for the installation of the new Dean. I suspect there’s not been an installation Liturgy like this one before. For the Organ Voluntary, Benjamin played the Widor Toccata, but not the original/authentic Widor Toccata. You’ll have to go elsewhere to hear that.
Question: What was the point of inserting three big-band/jazz sections in the Widor Toccata? (And I’m not embedding that video or linking to it; I was so turned off by it).
It was stupid, it was dumb. I know that stupid is “in” here in the US, but I didn’t expect stupid at WNC.
Has anyone asked that question? Has Benjamin thought to ask that question: What’s the point of inserting three big-band/jazz sections in the Widor Toccata? Or maybe Benjamin likes this. I don’t know. Or maybe our High Church Benjamin who wants to be an Anglican priest chose to like this in order to keep his job and things going there as they have been. It seems to me that if Widor were comfortable with people disrespecting/messing with his Toccata to this drastic extent he would have placed a disclaimer at the top of the first page of the score reading: “Feel free to add anything to my piece that you want. Stick anything you want in it and anywhere you want. Any genre of music, it doesn’t matter. This is just my rough draft. In fact, my crystal ball tells me that there will be a country music singer in the US named Dolly Parton sometime in the future and you can even stick some of her music in here if you want. It doesn’t matter whether it’s French or not. I mean, why not? I’m completely comfortable with anything you want to do with it (you can even play it backwards if you want), even though I won’t be around at that time to hear what you do with it.”
In case one is still not clear on what happened here: Benjamin was required to stop in three places while playing the Widor so that the WNC Jazz Night ClubTM could insert jazz/big band sections into the Widor Toccata. Loco. And no, I’m not making this up. This actually happened. After each jazz section ended, Benjamin resumed where he had left off. It looked to me like Benjamin began to smile when he stopped playing and the first jazz section appeared in the Widor, so maybe he approves of this. I hadn’t thought that he would but I may be completely wrong about him.
I suspect Benjamin takes the approach I took as a performing musician which was: As a professional musician, you play whatever they want you to play and you play it as well as you possibly can because you possess the skill level to play whatever they request and it’s all part of your job requirements. But admittedly, sometimes that can get very old and there is a limit to that because you do have your personal feelings and there’s some music you just don’t enjoy playing and if there becomes an overload of that music, then one starts to reconsider things. Should I continue here in this job and accept things as they are as a professional musician, or should I leave?
But I fail to understand what the purpose of this was. I really do. What’s wrong with the original time-honoured piece that Widor wrote? Or, is the intent at WNC to get as much jazz music in the Liturgy now as possible? I didn’t know that jazz was really that popular or sought-after today or such an attraction in an Anglican Liturgy. Maybe that’s the goal, to make jazz a major part of the Liturgy using the marketing slogan, “expanding the Anglican tradition.” Well, yes, you can “expand the Anglican tradition” by bringing in country music, hip-hop and/or rap if you want. There shouldn’t be any problem finding a place in the Liturgy for any of those genres or any genre if everyone puts their mind to it. [roll eyes/feeling of disgust]. Rap would be most appropriate for the Homily/Sermon or The Nicene Creed, don’t you think, with supporting quiet chords from
the organ the WNC Jazz Night ClubTM ensemble? No? Well why not? The non-authentic Widor ended with the WNC Jazz Night ClubTM ensemble joining our Benjamin on the last chords with their Big Band sound.
The original Widor is one of my favourite organ works and Benjamin played it superbly, although in three sections not per the original. I also like most jazz music (the Pat Metheny Group especially), but not in Widor or in any other classical music piece. They each have their place. I have no idea what the purpose of this was/is. Was it just to do something differently? Loco. Is it just to mess with Widor or any classical piece? Or is the intent to rebrand classical music pieces by inserting jazz into them to make them more “palatable” and more appealing and now appear “totally like wow, man” and “totally like cool, man” because we now play jazz in classical music pieces to pacify and appeal to the dumbed-down sheeple here in the US. That’s the impression I have about this ludicrous scheme. Is the intent also to make Washington National Cathedral seem like a “totally like cool like” church now where the masses will show up by the thousands — yeah right!…just to hear some jazz/Big Band? — and not a “stodgy” Anglican cathedral which is how the former low, low, low, low church Dean described WNC around the time he resigned. I’m glad that man’s gone. Yes, he called WNC “stodgy.” If he felt it was “stodgy” why did he take the job in the first place? Doesn’t seem like a wise decision. El hombre/The man gave me the impression he didn’t watch any of their previous Liturgies online to check them out to see what they do and what they were about before he took the job as Dean. I think intelligent people research a new job thoroughly before they take it so it doesn’t end up being a mistake, no? I would point out that he wasn’t there long as Dean. Fortunately. I take it that this WNC Jazz Night ClubTM is part of the new music programme “to take the cathedral into the future” (translation: dumb it down) that the former Dean was going on about. He said they were planning to “change the programme.” Well, that could only mean the music aspects, and we’re now seeing that and to that I say: No Gracias. It will make WNC like a totally like totally like cool like man church like. Ugh. Sigh.
Having been a regular viewer of their Liturgies for years (even before Benjamin was hired), for me the negatives of what they’re doing now far out-weigh the positives, and Benjamin has always been the #1 positive for me. At this point after observing what they’re doing and trying to remake themselves, I feel rather disgusted by it all. Chau.—el barrio rosa
A change of venue to Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris (November 2016): Organ Improvisation by Philippe Lefebvre (Organist at Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris)