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Pierre's Tuesday Blog

Healey Willan (1880-1968)

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For this fourth and final installment of our Lenten organ series, we will veer off our French organ path and look at the music of another composer/organist, long-time Toronto resident Healey Willan.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, Healey Willan maintained that he was born with the ability to read music and, when he was four-and-a-half, both his mother and governess provided his early musical training. At eight-and-a-half he entered St Saviour's Choir School, Eastbourne, as a probationer and progressed so well in his studies that in six months (a record for the school) he became a regular choir boy.

He studied piano and organ, harmony and counterpoint, and soon attained the envied position of 'doctor's boy,' which entailed assisting the church organist by setting out the proper music, dusting the organ keys, and turning on the pneumatic engine. At 11 he began directing choir practices for boys older than himself and played and conducted for the Evensong services at St Saviour's, alternating with the adult organist. His voice changed at 14, but he was given an extra year's schooling notwithstanding. When he did take his leave the headmaster and organist-choirmaster, Walter Hay Sangster, paid him what Willan regarded as a high compliment: 'I shall miss you. You never had a great voice, but you never missed a lead.'

Willan went on to private organ study with William Stevenson Hoyte, organist of All Saints Church in London. Willan credited Sangster and Hoyte with his basic musical education ('unknown men, really, but great teachers'). While studying organ with Hoyte he also studied piano with Evlyn Howard-Jones; he entertained visions of a career as a concert pianist specializing in the music of Brahms, for whose 'dignity, breadth and spaciousness' he felt profound respect; but an injury to his forearm that limited the use of his right hand put an end to that dream.

Willan served as organist-choirmaster at St Saviour's Church, St Alban's, Herts, 1898-1900; Christ Church, Wanstead, 1900-3; and St John the Baptist, Holland Road, Kensington, 1903-13; and gained a reputation as an authority on plainchant in the vernacular (ie, English rather than Latin), a natural extension of his religious views.

Willan emigrated to Canada at the invitation of the principal of the then-Toronto Conservatory of Music (later Royal Conservatory of Music) in 1913, offering him the position of head of the theory department. A friend had recommended Willan after hearing him play in London. Three weeks after his arrival in Toronto he accepted the post of organist-choirmaster at Toronto’s St Paul's Anglican Church. In 1914 he was appointed a lecturer and examiner for the University of Toronto. From 1919 to 1925 he served as music director of the university's Hart House Theatre and in that capacity he wrote and conducted incidental music for 14 plays.

(Years later Willan said that the numbers 3 and 13 had played an important part in his life and, since the invitation arrived on the third day of the third month in 1913 when Willan was 33, he decided to accept the Toronto position.)

In 1921, the rector of the small and impecunious mid-town Anglican Church of St Mary Magdalene, solicited his help in finding an organist-choirmaster. Willan nominated himself, resigned from St Paul's, and began an association with St Mary's that was to last till his death (with the exception of the period August 1941-September 1942). Willan proceeded to institute an Anglo-Catholic style of service-music, a style first made evident in the Christmas services of 1921. He never regretted his decision to take the post; in 1963 he said, 'You have a sense of home, absolute completion... doing the work you want to do and the work you feel you can do.'

Under Canada’s two solitudes tradition, Healey Willan is embraced, along with Sir Ernest MacMillan, as one of the dominant voices of Englsh-Canadian music in the first half of the 20th century. This status is further emboldened by the fact Mr. Willan was commissioned to write the homage anthem O Lord, Our Governour for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, the first non-resident of Britain to be so honoured. Although Willan has nearly 700 compositions to his credit, many of which are secular in nature, the vast majority of Willan’s creative output is made of sacred and liturgical works.

Organ Compositions

With the music for organ one enters a different world. Here Willan was thoroughly at home and made a significant and lasting contribution. One work stands out: the monumental Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue of 1916. Said to have been described by Joseph Bonnet as the greatest of its genre since Bach (there is stiff competition from Rheinberger, Reger, and Karg-Elert) this is a virtuoso work of great depth, ingenuity, and variety. It represents the culmination of Willan's first period of organ composition, which started around 1906 with a Fantasia on 'Ad coenam agn’. The Preludes and Fugues in C minor and B minor and the Epilogue are the other major works from this period.

Willan composed a few small pieces for the instrument over the next four decades, but it was not until 1950 that he returned seriously to organ composition. By then his style was considerably pruned and had become more contrapuntal. Chorale preludes were the most frequent expression 1950-60: Six Chorale Preludes Sets I and II, Five Preludes on Plainchant Melodies, and Ten Hymn Preludes Sets I, II, and III are the major collections.


Healey WILLAN(1880-1968)

Prelude and Fugue in C minor, B146
Scot Stout plays the M.P. Möller Pipe Organ at Westminster Congregational UCC in Spokane, Washington

Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue B149
Patrick Wedd plays the Casavant Organ of the Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Montréal

Hymns and Improvisations from Church services (1966):
Hymn: Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones, followed by an Improvised Postlude
The Magnificat with Antiphon - Psalm 117 with Antiphon - Improvised postlude
Processional hymn 'Hail Thee Festival Day' with improvised interludes
Healey Willan plays the Breckels and Mathews pipe organ in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto

"Fanfare" from Five Pieces for organ, B177
Garrett F. Martin plays the 117 Rank Ruffatti Organ at Coral Ridge Presbyterian, Fort Lauderdale, FL

'Gelobt Sei Gott', Chorale Prelude (based on a melody by the German 16th century composer Melchior Vulpius)
Philip Bond plays the Fr. Henry Willis organ at the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lincoln (England)

Postlude in D
Organ Prelude #1 - "O, How Blest Are Ye Whose Toil Is Ended"
Organ Prelude #2 - "Holy Ghost, with Light Divine"
Jon DeHorn plays the Wangerian-Weickhardt Organ at Fort Street Presbyterian Church (Detroit)

Chaz Bowers plays the Gallery and Sanctuary Organs of Immaculate Conception Parish Church, Irwin, PA.

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April 6th, 2012, "I Think You Will Love This Music Too" will be posting its 50th montage "This Day in Music History, April 6 1962" to its Pod-O-Matic Podcast. Read our English and French commentary April 6th on the ITYWLTMT Blogspot blog.