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 the music, Liturgy and 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.
An Anglican Liturgy is not complete without at least one descant.—Dr Gerre Hancock (February 21, 1934 – January 21, 2012), former Organist and Master of the Choristers, St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, Manhattan.
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 before and after the Liturgy to show scenes of the cathedral, such as the blue/purple stained glass window and others. Muchas gracias.
Hola a todos. It was Trinity Sunday 2016, which is the First Sunday after Pentecost. Traditionally, Trinity Sunday is when the hymn Nicaea (“Holy, Holy, Holy”) is sung, usually for one of the processional hymns. And that was the case at Washington National Cathedral (WNC) up on Mount St Albans in upper Northwest in the District. As usual, I was waiting for the last verse of Nicaea to be sung because there’s a descant for Nicaea that nobody seems to know about. I can’t imagine Nicaea being sung without a descant on the last verse, but that’s usually the way it’s sung even at St Thomas Fifth Avenue where their trebles sing descants throughout the school year. The trebles of the Grace Cathedral Choir (Anglican Communion) of Men and Boys here in San Francisco sang this descant one year and that’s where I first heard it. But for some reason, Grace Cathedral’s Liturgies (audio on demand) are not available online for more than the short period of 7 days. Also, Trinity Sunday seems to fall in this transition period with cathedral schools where the trebles may be there for that Liturgy or they may have that day off as their choir school prepares to close for the Summer, and I presume they’re preparing for the end of the school term. The only recording I know of for this descant is one that I cannot recommend. It’s pretty bad with an adult church choir which shall remain nameless. Their descant is rather weak, wobbly and it blends in more with the hymn. From observing their dead-looking congregation while the soprano section was singing it, I don’t think they even noticed the descant! When a descant is sung, I want to hear it strongly soaring above the hymn — as they do at St Thomas Fifth Avenue — so there’s no doubt that a descant is being sung. We already know what the hymn sounds like from having heard it for years in most cases, so we don’t need to focus on that as much. Granted, the hymn serves as the foundation for the descant. And the descant is usually only sung once so it should soar gloriously above the hymn preferably with superb Anglican trebles. If not with trebles/boys (or girls), you need a good, well-trained soprano section (with no vibrato) to do descants well, at least for my taste. There was no descant for Nicaea at WNC this past Trinity Sunday and I honestly I wasn’t expecting one when I saw the boys with the Men of the Cathedral Choir begin their Introit at the rear of the Nave. The girls are more likely to sing a descant than the boys at WNC. The trebles are a little “under-powered” I guess one could diplomatically say and they’re also smaller in number. But overall, WNC is not “big” on descants anyway. I can’t remember the last time I heard a descant there. If it were not for our Benjamin’s creative hymn playing (especially on the last verse), every verse would sound the same and that’s boring. I guess they don’t agree — well our Benjamin probably agrees since he’s devoutly High Church, but I suspect it’s that Low Church guy who doesn’t agree (or care!) — with the late Gerre Hancock who (supposedly) said or at least I heard or read somewhere that he said (I’m paraphrasing) that an Anglican Liturgy is not complete without at least one descant. If Gerre Hancock said that, I agree with him. I’ve noticed that with the CofE (Church of England) for all State occasions where the Queen is present that every hymn has a descant (I’m thinking of St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral and at Westminster Abbey). William and Kate chose descants for every hymn in their la boda/wedding.
A brief aside: Prince William was recently featured on the cover of the gay magazine, Attitude where he spoke out against homophobic bullying and the mental health implications of homophobic, bi-phobic and transphobic bullyings. He also met with a group of GLBTQs at Kensington Palace to hear their experiences of bullying and discuss the impact on mental health. He and his brother, Prince Harry, seem to be walking more in the footsteps of their mother, Princess Diana.
For this Liturgy on Trinity Sunday at WNC, since the trebles didn’t sing a descant our Benjamin nicely made up for the lack of a descant by changing the harmonies on the last verse and that was beautiful, as was his improvisation during the censing of the altar. Yes, this was a more High Church Liturgy being Trinity Sunday. I was glad to see that. Unlike one of their more recent Liturgies that I wrote about, I saw some smoke coming out of the thurible throughout the Liturgy — it didn’t die after the reading of The Gospel — when the thurifer (he’s also one of the acolytes on other occasions) was nicely swinging the thurible. He made a very fine thurifer.
Now back to this descant I was going on about, I searched for the score online but could not find it. For anyone interested I’ll try to make this pretty basic for those who may not be too advanced musically:
If the hymn (Holy, Holy, Holy) is in the key of Eb Major, the descant begins on the B Flat above Middle C. Except for the next-to-last measure, this descant follows the note values of the hymn from what I remember from hearing it, so these are all mostly quarter notes except when indicated with a hyphen following the note to indicate a half note (like this: F-)
Here’s the descant:
E Flat Major: (ascending up the keyboard) Bb Bb Eb Eb F- G-, Ab- Ab Ab (down) G Eb Bb-,
Bb- (up) Eb Eb G G (down) F D Bb (up) D F F F (down ) D Bb,
Bb Bb (up) Eb Eb F- G-, Ab- Ab Ab (down) G Eb Bb-, (up) Eb- Eb- Eb- Eb- Eb (down) C (up) D Eb Eb //
Did you get that? That’s pretty close, if not exact to the descant I heard from Grace Cathedral. I might change that Eb I have in bold font to a high G for a little variety and to make it more “glorious.” And of course this deserve a majestic Ah-men on the end. We used amens on all hymns at the Anglo-Catholic parish where I served as organist. They don’t use amens at WNC.
Then came that southern baptist Sequence Hymn/Gospel Hymn. What was that about? One wonders if there is a former southern baptist on staff at WNC? I ask that because from my experience, the priest (Vicar or Rector) selects the hymns. I don’t know if that’s the case at WNC but what was with the Sequence/Gospel hymn, “Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine?” Ugh. Why was that sung? Incense and a southern baptist hymn in the same Liturgy? Does no one see a clash (in styles) there? Incense is High Church and incense was used during this hymn. The hymn “Blessed Assurance” (which talks about “visions of rapture”) is bottom-basement Low Church. I know some hymns are used across denominations (such as Aurelia/The Church’s One Foundation) but from my experience “Blessed Assurance” is specifically and very southern baptist and has that history attached to it. It was used every Summer in the evangelical/fundamentalist Billy Graham Crusades sung by the (2,000 voice?) Crusade Choir. That hymn is one of the signature hymns of the anti-GLBTQ southern baptist church. And southern baptists haven’t changed their bigoted and prejudiced thinking. For example, following the tragedy in Orlando at the gay bar (Pulse), some piece of baptist basura — I don’t know if this bigoted church is a member of the southern baptist convention but they might as well be — in Sacramento California the “pastor” praised the killing of the gay boys in Pulse (the gay bar in Orlando) and accused them all — people he didn’t even know and had never met — of being child molesters. You know, that sounds exactly like yet another closet-case, homophobic gay “pastor” trying to hide/disguise his own gay sexual orientation in front of his congregation. That is so typical of closet cases, just like that closet case gay guy in Orlando who killed 49 people. People who are secure with themselves and their own sexuality don’t go around hating on gays and lesbians and wrapping in the bible. Now back to this hymn “Blessed Assurance,” with all the Anglican hymns you have in the hymnal, one from the bigoted, prejudiced redneck southern baptist denomination is chosen at pro-GLBTQ Washington National Cathedral? (shaking head in disgust). I would point out that this is not the first time this has happened. They’ve used other southern baptists hymns at WNC on occasion. I won’t list them to refresh their memory and give them any ideas. Or, are they trying to once again, “be all things to all people” (which doesn’t work well). So if anyone complains about the incense, they can say: But we sang that “Blessed Assurance” hymn from the bigoted and prejudiced southern baptist church to cater to the Low Church crowd, so stop whining about the incense.
There were a couple of positive things about “Blessed Assurance” and that is our Benjamin played it very tastefully — as I would expect him to do; he has very good tastes even when he’s called upon to play the worst of music! — and also I’d never heard that hymn played on a cathedral organ or a pipe organ for that matter or by someone of our Benjamin’s caliber so that was positive. Then there was his organ improvisation after The Gospel reading. I enjoyed that and it more on the High Church side, especially the beginning. Was it just me or was he trying to cancel out the whole experience of having just played that god-awful hymn to try to forget they ever sang it? It’s as if he were saying: “Just forget we ever sang that ‘Blessed Assurance’ hymn. I know I’m going to try to forget I ever played it, and instead listen to my High Church organ improvisation and focus on that.” Well I did and I enjoyed the improvisation very much.
For The Gospel reading, I noticed no one made the three signs of the cross (including the priest) when she said, “The Holy Gospel of Our Jesus Christ according to John.” I suspect they’re the bottom-basement Low Church tourists or non-Anglicans sitting back there in the Nave.
During the Communion Anthem, unfortunately viewers were not allowed to watch the Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys sing their anthem. “And why is that?” one might ask. That’s because it would seem that production finds stained glass windows and watching people take communion more interesting than watching their own Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys. “Here we go again,” I said to myself. This was the same complaint I had about Trinity Wall Street and it’s why I stopped watching their Liturgies. I found their production work inept, incompetent, pathetic and too frustrating to deal with to enjoy the Liturgy/music, and I really have missed watching/listening to the outstandingly superb Trinity Choir. And now it’s as if those idiots from Trinity Wall Street needed to pick up extra production work so they decided to come down to the District and help out or take over the production work at WNC. (Sigh) As a musician and former Anglican church musician, I want to watch the musicians. I’m not interested in repeatedly seeing the same stained-glass windows week after week or seeing the same columns or baskets of flowers. It’s as if production thinks that their viewers are one-time viewers and that they don’t come back in the future. Don’t they have many repeat viewers such as myself? I would think so. What is interesting about watching people take communion? It looks the same every week. That’s what I said about Trinity Wall Street. They wouldn’t dream of taking that camera off the priests when they’re speaking but yet they don’t afford the same respect to their own fine musicians. Ugh.
Once again, mi amigo/my friend asked: Are they trying to do what organist Diane Bish did with The Joy of Music? You know, honestly, I don’t know what they’re trying to do other than frustrate viewers like myself (and probably some other musicians who are watching). If they’re trying to emulate Diane Bish’s programme, these clueless production people don’t seem to understand that Diane’s approach worked for Diane because she was in a different cathedral or parish church every week. She was not in the same building week after week showing viewers the same stained-glass windows they saw the week before, and the week before that, and the week before that. Or even a few minutes ago. And with each scene her production crew (Haney Productions) showed of the interior of the building they showed them for only a very short period of time and the scenes were never shown to the detriment of the attention/respect to the music and performers. She didn’t have her cameras park on a stained glass window for 2.5 minutes (or whatever it was) where you’re wondering whether the camera crew has “fallen asleep at the switch” or went for a break and left the camera stuck on a window or a basket of flowers. That’s what they do at WNC now. In this Liturgy below, I missed part of the Communion Anthem because I was tired of watching communion so I had to skip forward in the video. Very frustrating. Then our Benjamin was playing his improvisation during the ending of communion — which I was enjoying watching — until that got interrupted too because viewers were sent off once again to stare at yet another stained glass window at 1.28.54. At this point, I’m thinking that maybe WNC’s production crew (who I used to never have any complaints with…what happened to them?) would be much better suited for producing videos for District museums than that of Anglican Liturgies. So maybe they might want to contact some of the museums in the District to see if they can help out.
Also, don’t miss our Benjamin’s interlude before the last verse of the processional hymn (Moscow).
I also see that Benjamin’s name is still not listed on the service leaflet. Since he’s the Cathedral Organist and we are most fortunate that’s the case, shouldn’t his name be on the service leaflet permanently? 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):