Tag Archives: High Church at Washington National Cathedral Pentecost Sunday

Music And Liturgical Review: The Day of Pentecost At Washington National Cathedral (Choirmaster Benjamin Straley)


Update: 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.

The article is about the music and Liturgy 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. They had some excellent music in the District this past Domingo/Sunday up at Washington National Cathedral on Mount St Albans. It was the Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday, and the Seventh Sunday of Easter. Pentecost is the longest season of the church year throughout the Anglican Communion and other christian denominations (Anglicans, Lutherans, Roman Catholics and a couple of others, depending upon the church) who honour the Liturgical Year.

For this Liturgy, Cathedral Organist and Assistant Director of Music, Benjamin Straley, expertly served as Choirmaster and he did a splendid job. I don’t remember ever seeing him conduct before but in my opinion his conducting style is far better than that of another choirmaster. Benjamin’s style as a choirmaster reminds me of the visiting excellent choirmaster from a parish church of the CofE (Church of England) I worked with in one of my church positions, and he and Benjamin have a very similar conducting style and overall refined style as a choirmaster. Benjamin beats time when he conducts and he wasn’t looking all around at the priests, vergers and towards the back of the Nave like another choirmaster does, but rather was very focused on his music stand (scores) and the Cathedral Choir of Men and Girls. From what I could tell from the camera work, he wasn’t conducting the hymns (or if he was, very subtly) but rather just starting them with the Choir, and he sung the hymns from his music stand it looked like. Hymns don’t need to be conducted like a certain choirmaster feels the need to do. The organist has played these hymns for decades and can easily set the tempo for the hymns and proceed on.

Since our Benjamin was serving as Choirmaster, there was a superb guest organist taking his place at the Cathedral’s Great Organ. He’s excellent and reminds me of our Benjamin’s playing. He looked familiar to me (has he been there before?), but I’m sorry I don’t know his name because it wasn’t printed on the service leaflet. (Why are the names of the organist and choirmaster rarely ever printed on the service leaflet? They only do so for “special” Liturgies. They never fail to leave off the names of the priests. Mi amigo said: That’s because the priest think they are the most important people there.) The guest organist played beautifully and is very skilled at improvisation (which is critically important in an Anglican Liturgy). I liked his hymn playing very much. It was very legato, full and lush, and his organ improvisation during the censing of the altar was very majestic and more on the High Church side. It was lovely. I have nothing but praise for him. Just like our Benjamin, he’s my kind of organist. (And because I like him, he probably won’t be back! (grin). Maybe he will fill in for Benjamin when/if he takes a holiday from his duties there.) And the celebrant priest took his time censing the altar during the processional hymn.

From observing this Liturgy, I got further confirmation that our Benjamin is High Church/a devout Anglican, as I had sensed he is from his superb playing. He bowed to the processional crosses as they passed (something I never see from another choirmaster) and bowed (the priests did also) during the appropriate place on the last verse of the first processional hymn. During the Consecration, he bowed his head in a prayerful manner (since he couldn’t kneel) and made the sign of the cross/blessed himself at the appropriate places during the Consecration, as well as elsewhere in the Liturgy (such as bowing for the name “Jesus Christ” when that appears as in “through Jesus Christ our Lord.”). He sets an excellent example of a High Church devout Anglican. Other than two of the Men of the Cathedral Choir on the right side (one being the excellent Cantor for that day), I saw no one else in the Cathedral Choir observing High Church practises, and I think that’s because they’re mostly Low Church.

For this High Holy day liturgy, they used incense the thurible to give the appearance of High Church. Other than approximately the first half of the Liturgy where I did see a little smoke coming out of the thurible, there was no indication that they used much incense. Are they concerned about complaints from the Low Church congregation? Is that why they barely use any incense? So that when someone whines to them about the incense they can say: “Well I’m sorry that you had a problem with it but you might be interested to know that the thurible was on near-empty from the start and it was completely empty after The Gospel reading, so the “smoke” you’re complaining about is entirely of your imagination because we barely used any incense. I suspect just the mere sight of the (empty) thurible is enough to arouse a complaint from you.” At the Anglo-Catholic parish where I served as organist-choirmaster for, we used lots of rosemary incense. I enjoyed the aroma of that and it got very smokey in there.

I didn’t see any smoke coming out of the thurible at all when the thurifer censed the congregation. He did a very nice job but he could have done more. It was rather short. And frankly, in a sense he shouldn’t have bothered at all although I’m glad he did. I didn’t appreciate the congregations lack of respect for the Liturgy at that point, at least the congregation within camera view. That was annoying to me. What is with this disrespectful congregation sitting near the Sanctuary area? They didn’t even have the sense or respect to bow to the thurifer either time. What is wrong with people?! They just stood there staring at him like zombies. They might as well have been in a Southern Baptist church (ugh!) where they wouldn’t know a thurible if they saw one. Upon reflection, maybe that’s where they had intended to go and mistook the directions. Mi amigo said: Maybe the congregation is so Low Church that they don’t know that you’re supposed to bow to the thurifer. Perhaps. But just by instinct one would think they would do so.

“Keeping Up Appearances:” Giving the Appearance of Using Incense

The lack of incense in the thurible reminded me of Hyacinth Bucket (“it’s Bouquet”) of the British comedy, Keeping Up Appearances, and the skis she wanted on the top of the car because the Caradines (spell check?) had skis on their car. Remember that? So she bought Richard skis for his cumpleaños/birthday. Richard, Hyacinth’s esposo/husband, questioned this gift because, well, neither of them ski. That was immaterial to our Hyacinth as she explained to Richard that you don’t need to ski, you just give the impression that you ski by having skies on top of your car. Then he remembered the Caradines having skis on their car and he concluded that’s where this idea from Hyacinth originated. Then Emmett from next door — Hyacinth’s divorced neighbour (although she can’t understand why he’s divorced because he plays the piano so beautifully! LOL) — saw the skis on Hyacinth’s car and questioned them and she explained they were going to her sister Violet’s. She’s the one with that large house you know, swimming pool and room for a pony. He said he didn’t know that Violet lived that far north (for skis). LOL. Well, back to WNC: That’s what WNC does with the incense. They don’t use incense in any large amount (it’s never like St Mary The Virgin, also known as “Smokey Mary’s” in Manhattan). They at WNC just like to give the impression that they use incense by dragging out the thurible on High Holy days to have whispers of smoke come from it now and then, purely for show/theatre purposes and keeping up appearances. But they do try, bless them. They don’t have to use the thurible at all; they could leave it locked up in the cabinet where frankly I think they would prefer that it remain. Mi amigo/My friend saw the thurifer lightly swinging the thurible during the final processional hymn and said, “How pathetic! There’s not a bit of smoke coming out of that thing.” There wasn’t. It was dead. Now I know our Benjamin has more than enough to do but maybe they should let him prepare the thurible and then it would be done properly because he was/is — or it is on hold now because of his duties as Organist and Assistant Director of Music? — studying to be an Anglican priest. And the more I see from him, I think he would make a very fine Anglo-Catholic/High Church priest.

For this Liturgy, the Cathedral Choir of Men and Girls performed the following anthems:

Offertory: Leo Sowerby/Come, Holy Ghost
Communion: Thomas Tallis/Loquebantur variis linguis

And the Anglican Chant (for psalm 104) was a setting by George Walsh.

They have stopped chanting the responses before and after The Gospel reading just as I had thought. If only they would use the responses that they use at St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan (which one can hear in any of their audio webcasts of their Sunday Festal Holy Eucharist liturgies during the school year when the trebles are there). I’ve always liked those responses, especially the response after The Gospel where the trebles soar up to that top note. Although that top note is never the same because the key that the organist uses for the response is based on the key (signature) for the Sequence Hymn immediately before The Gospel. So sometimes that response is lower on the scale and other times the trebles end up gloriously in the stratosphere. That’s followed by a High Church sassy organ improvisation (just like the guest organist played at WNC for this Liturgy: The Day of Pentecost), or a more subdued improvisation or a combination of both styles.
And speaking of that, one of the highlights of this Liturgy was the organ improvisation following the reading of The Gospel. When I heard it, I said to my screen: Oh, all right! We’re now at St Thomas Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Yes, it was that good. He played a superb High Church fanfare improvisation following The Gospel reading to get the acolytes and gospeller (she didn’t seem to be big on incense) back into the Sanctuary area. It was wonderful! Although I don’t know that all of the Low Church people there appreciated it. His improvisation was in two styles ending in a more meditative setting. Like our Benjamin, the guest organist is a superb improviser, which is indeed a very special talent and art form. Not everyone can improvise especially as superbly as Benjamin and this guest organist do. Organists of this high caliber have usually studied improvisation under specific highly-regarded and respected organists who excel in the art of improvisation.

The final organ voluntary for this Liturgy was Variation sur le thème ‘Veni Creator’ by the French composer, Maurice Duruflé. I especially like Duruflé. It was beautiful. Was that the 64′ at the end? I’m quite sure he used the 64′ for some of the hymns, such as Down Ampney (Come Down, O Love Divine). That last verse was glorious; I can imagine how it sounded live in the Nave. It would put a lump in one’s throat. My headphones had a nice, rich rumbling bass sound. And how often does one have a 64′? Not often. The most I ever had in my church jobs was a 32′, so one might as well take full advantage of the 64′ when you have it. Work it, which he did! Muchas gracias. And the guest organist looked like he was enjoying himself and as superbly (and High Church) as he played he should have!

La producción/Production/The Camera Crew

La producción has changed their style and they’re now doing more of what turned me off from watching the liturgies at Trinity Wall Street (TWS). I do miss watching/hearing the superb Trinity Choir of Trinity Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. But I stopped watching their Liturgies because I became too frustrated with the camera work at TWS. Rather than keeping the camera on the musicians performing at Trinity Wall Street, their camera goes off scanning slowly down the High Altar when the Choir is singing, parking on a stained glass window, the columns or slowly scanning the ceiling of the Nave (which never changes). At WNC, they’re now doing similar camerawork I think to give a “poetic” or “artsy” effect or something. It’s annoying. They only show these scenes when the musicians (the Cathedral Choir of Men and Boy/Girls and our Benjamin) are performing and that’s when one’s eyes should be on the musicians and not off looking at windows or the ceiling. The same complaint I had with TWS. 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 in recent months that has changed. It was especially bad/frustrating during the 8 May 2016 Liturgy when our Benjamin was improvising during Communion. Rather than watching him — which is what I wanted to do — they showed scenes of las flores/flowers and parked on those for awhile, to the point where I thought someone had completely forgotten about the camera and that it was stuck on flowers. Then the large stained-glass window was shown which I’ve seen many times before. Mi amigo/My friend said, “I think they’re trying to emulate what organist Diane Bish did in her programme, The Joy of Music. Yes, it looks like that’s what they’re trying to do. The problem with that is that Diane was in a different parish or cathedral church each week, and not in the same building. It made sense for her to do that — but she never did so at the expense of the music where you felt frustrated that the camera wasn’t on her — but it doesn’t make sense in this context. I would also point out that they don’t show the stained glass windows, columns, zoom in on flowers — and I love flowers but I choose to look at them at a certain time and not when I want to watch Benjamin — and the ceiling when the priests are speaking, celebrating or giving their Homily. The camera stays on the priest speaking. Again, it’s only when the musicians are performing that someone there thinks we don’t need to see them all the time. Back to the 8 May Liturgy that I mentioned earlier: Then when the trebles began their entrance for the Communion Anthem, the camera was on a stained glass window so we didn’t even see the boys. Then the camera fleetingly showed the boys and then we were sent back to a stained glass window. Sigh. (What is with their obsession with stained glass windows?) This is the same frustrating stuff they’ve done at Trinity Wall Street. Why don’t they create a page on their website of pictures of all of their stained glass windows and viewers can go to that page and look at all of their windows for as long as they want if their attention span is too short for watching the musicians. Although I think most people would have even less attention span for looking at flowers. 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! Here’s a 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 enjoy this more High Church Liturgy. They don’t come around that often at Washington National Cathedral, so you have to take them/enjoy them when you can. Chau.—el barrio rosa