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 Benjamin Straley, the superb organist at Washington National Cathedral (WNC), a cathedral church of the worldwide Anglican Communion in the District of Columbia en los Estados Unidos/in the US.
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. I know it’s the Fifth Sunday of Easter 2016 and I meant to write about this before now, but for the Fourth Sunday of Lent 2016, our Benjamin played Litanies by the French composer Jehan Alain for his organ voluntary at WNC in the District. His performance is one of the best I’ve heard of this sassy piece. I’ve worked on Litanies although I’ve not performed it. I learned the manual parts (keyboard parts) at home on the piano, but for lack of the use of a church organ on which to practise it was the pedal work that remained to be learned. Jehan Alain (1911-1940) was one of the brothers of well-known organist Marie-Claire Alain (1926–2013). Jehan was killed during WWII as part of the French Army, and Litanies is his best known piece. I enjoyed Benjamin’s performance. I would have held the last chord a bit longer than he did (that’s not a complaint) and I haven’t seen the score in awhile but I think there’s a fermata over the last chord isn’t there? I’ve always like that last chord; it’s very sassy. It requires every finger with — as I recall — the RH thumb on two black keys (D Flat and E Flat, I think). Our Benjamin played it like he plays everything else — superbly — and I don’t think I’ve ever heard this piece played on the Great Organ at WNC. It was a pleasure to listen to and watch him play it.
Mi amigo/my friend mentioned that he didn’t sense that Benjamin’s success as full-time Cathedral Organist and part-time Concert Organist has gone to his head. No, not at all. I don’t get that impression either, fortunately. And from my experience, people who are secure with themselves don’t let their success give them a big head. Instead, they remain humble and modest, which is how I sense our Benjamin is. Insecure people are arrogant and snooty and I have no use for arrogant people.
On another topic I’ve been meaning to write about: I’ve wondered if the Choirmaster has ever considered buying a rear view mirror attachment for his music stand? That might be a good idea, then he wouldn’t have to keep looking behind himself so often. As one of my commenters said sometime ago, paraphrasing: Michael is often looking behind himself back into the Nave and it looks odd. What is he looking at? I agree it looks odd and I don’t know why he does that and he does so frequently. He would no longer have to do that and possibly prevent a cricked neck with my rear view mirror attachment idea. It’s almost as if Michael would prefer to be a Verger rather than Choirmaster. WNC has good Vergers and many of them. They have everything under control so there’s no need for Michael to try to do their job for them, if that’s what he’s doing. I don’t know what he’s doing frankly. And Benjamin uses his monitor above the organ music rack to see what’s going on in the Nave, so Michael doesn’t need to override him and try to do his job for him. I’ve even seen Benjamin look around the column near the organ console into the Nave to check on the procession. Benjamin decides whether an organ interlude is needed during the processions to lengthen the processional hymn when necessary for the full procession to make its way into the Sanctuary area or (in the reverse) to the back of the Nave. He also can see the free-standing altar in his monitor as well as the Choirmaster and what the priests are doing. And on the odd occasion they begrudgingly use incense he adds the appropriate High Church improvisation-interlude for the censing of the altar. So since our Benjamin flawlessly controls all that, I don’t understand why Michael is frequently looking behind himself or looking over at the priests or altar. It seems to me he should be focused on his Cathedral Choir he’s there to conduct. I’m not sure why he “conducts” the hymns. Well, if you can call that “conducting” the hymns. He just moves/bounces his hands really, but does not specifically “beat time.” What I mean is that I don’t see any specific beat patterns indicating 3/4, 4/4, 6/8 time, for example. His conducting somewhat reminds me of the conducting style of the organist that was fired (by the Bishop) and with him one didn’t know whether he was trying to conduct or take orbit and fly out of the cathedral. But Benjamin sets the tempo for the hymns and controls the rest through his monitor.
It would appear that someone has given the order to play the hymns choppy, although the video below (from WNC) is not an example of that. The hymns in that video were played mostly legato and that video is here for Benjamin’s Jehan Alain organ voluntary. But at WNC, I’ve noticed choppy hymn playing rather often which is why I’m bringing it up. It was really choppy/detached in one of the processional hymns recently, but I don’t remember which video that was. I did find this one: The first verse of the processional hymn in this video which begins at 13.28 after his “royal” fanfare introduction to the hymn. The first verse is mostly very choppy/detached playing. Why? Then after the first verse the playing becomes more legato. Question: Is the thinking that by playing the hymns choppy that this will help the non-singing congregation hear the hymns better to get them to sing them? If so, you shouldn’t bother. You’re wasting your time with that idea because the congregation at WNC does not sing no matter how the hymns are played. And they (including the tourists) don’t sing even familiar hymns that are sung across multiple christian denominations such as Aurelia (The Church’s One Foundation, for example). From what I’ve seen in the videos, the tourists seem to sit in the back of the Nave and for the hymns they stand with their arm folded and looking straight ahead or they stare at the service leaflet not even attempting to sing the hymns. At WNC, they are a stand up and mumble congregation including the resident congregation. The singing sound one hears is mostly that of the Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys/Girls. So why play the hymns in a choppy style then? Play them legato as all well-trained organists are taught to play hymns, including Benjamin. Someone might be thinking: Are you criticising our Benjamin? No, not at all. I don’t think he’s responsible for this because when he first arrived at WNC he played the hymns beautifully, very legato, full and lush (and High Church) — not this unmusical choppy stuff I hear rather frequently — and his superb hymn playing with his High Church organ interludes between some verses was one of the reasons I was hoping they would hire him. But some idiot there apparently told him to play the hymns choppy. I repeat: the congregation doesn’t sing the hymns no matter how he plays them, so play them legato as they should be played. The hymns sound boring, non-musical and monotonous when played choppy (almost staccato). By comparison, they don’t play the hymns choppy at St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and they have a singing congregation at St Thomas to the point where their congregation almost sounds rehearsed. With choppy playing, there is no lovely musical singing line or phrasing, and well-trained musicians know what I mean by this. With choppy playing, it just sounds like dry chords. There’s nothing musical about it. And again, this is not our Benjamin’s fault.
In my opinion, in some ways I feel that Washington National Cathedral has ruined Benjamin’s playing compared to when he arrived. But I’m assured and confident that the original Benjamin that I heard when he first arrived at WNC is still there — he’s just being suppressed — and if allowed to, he would play today as he played when he first arrived. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?! These days, I often get the feeling that he’s holding back (suppressing himself) to cater to what’s been required of him there and WNC’s Low Church preferences. Ugh. I’ve been meaning to say these things for awhile, thinking that they might disappear, but they haven’t.
Now back to Jehan Alain’s Litanies. Enjoy Benjamin’s performance of the piece. I certainly did. It begins at 1.19.06 in the first video below.
Also, the last processional hymn (which begins at 1.15.42 in the first video below) that they
sang stood up and mumbled at WNC just before Benjamin played Litanies, was the “US version” of that hymn. The second video below is a performance from the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebration of the “British version” of that same hymn complete with a lovely descant on the last verse sung by the trebles of St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral Choir and The Choir of Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal. William and Kate look like they enjoyed the descant very much — and I take it they like descants because they chose descants for every hymn for their Royal Wedding — but the Queen looks like she didn’t even hear the descant. She often looks the same; I don’t know that she has an ear for music. She looked utterly bored or disgusted — didn’t approve of the marriage or something? — when the Sir David Willcocks’s arrangement of the National Anthem (“God Save The Queen”) was premiered for Charles and Diana’s wedding (see last video below). How could anyone look like that upon hearing that beautiful music with that glorious descant on the second verse sung by the boys? Chau.—el barrio rosa
Listen to how smooth and legato the organists play the hymns in these two videos. This is how hymns are supposed to be played. There’s no detached/choppy playing here at all:
St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, London:
Westminster Abbey (Anglican), London:
(The trebles sing a soaring descant on the last verse of this hymn).
Look at how disinterested, bored and/or sour the Queen looks during the premiere of the Sir David Willcocks’s arrangement of the National Anthem at Charles and Diana’s wedding at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral. The Queen Mother looks pleasant, but not her daughter. Go to 3.30 in this video:
And you can hear more from 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 mind):