(b Balham, London, 12 Oct 1880; d Toronto, 16 Feb 1968). Canadian composer, teacher, organist and choirmaster. Particularly influential as a teacher, he wrote choral and organ works that have been frequently performed across North America.
His early education was undertaken privately. At the age of eight he entered St Saviour’s Choir School, Eastbourne, where he studied until 1895. Several positions as organist and choirmaster in and around London culminated in his appointment to St John the Baptist, Holland Road, in 1903. After further studies with W.S. Hoyte, he gained the FRCO in 1899. A close association with Francis Burgess led to membership in the London Gregorian Association in 1910.
In 1913 Willan was appointed head of theory at the Toronto Conservatory and organist of St Paul’s. In the next year he became a lecturer in music at the University of Toronto. He later served as vice-principal of the conservatory (1920–36), professor at the university (1936–50) and university organist (1932–64). He was also music director of Hart House Theatre (1919–25) and precentor of St Mary Magdalene (from 1921), a position he retained until his death. He founded the Tudor Singers in 1934, conducting the group until it was disbanded in 1939, and held the offices of president of the Royal Canadian College of Organists (1922–3, 1933–5), and president of the Canadian Performing Rights Society (during the mid-1930s). Widely honoured both in Canada and abroad, he was awarded a Lambeth doctorate in 1956, held honorary doctorates from four universities and was a Fellow of the Royal School of Church Music (from 1963). He was invited to compose one of the homage anthems, O Lord, our Governor, for the coronation of Elizabeth II. His other honours include the Canada Council Medal for outstanding achievement in the arts (1961).
Willan’s early compositions attest to the thoroughness of his training and to his absorption of the musical language of the late 19th century. Several large orchestral and choral works, many of them unfinished, feature richly Romantic melodies, strongly chromatic harmonies and heavy scoring. A large number of songs, most of them unpublished, are in a similar idiom. His early pieces for choir and for organ belong unmistakably to the post-Stanford period. The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in B and the Prelude and Fugue in C minor are to some extent typical of this stage of his development, although the organ work also recalls Reger. On his own admission, Willan fell heavily under the influence of Wagnerian opera, a love that was to bear particular fruit much later in his life. He also cherished ambitions of becoming a performer of Brahms’s piano works, which he studied with Howard-Jones. The large scale Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue for organ (1916) represents the high point of this period.
The high-church musical tradition that Willan established at St Mary Magdalene was based on the use of plainsong and Renaissance music, and led him into a quite different style for shorter liturgical compositions. His lifelong love of plainsong suggested a greater use of modality, while the sinuous melismas of chant found an echo in more subtle vocal lines. Equally, a preoccupation with Renaissance music drew from him a more contrapuntal style and a greater rhythmic freedom. Typical of this approach are the Six Motets (1924), the 11 Liturgical Motets (1928–37), 14 Missa brevis settings (1928–63) and a set of Evening Canticles (plainsong with fauxbourdons) dating from 1928. It is in these four groups of works that the economy, effectiveness and beauty of his church-music style is most evident. This style did not carry over into all of his choral writing, however – he maintained a fuller, more Romantic idiom for larger works with organ such as Sing we Triumphant Songs (1951) and O Sing unto the Lord (1956). In the 1960s he produced a large number of short anthems and motets for the use of the Lutheran Church in the USA. While not all have the quality of the earlier liturgical pieces, nevertheless they contain many beautiful moments.
Willan’s larger choral works are less tightly constructed, particularly when they involve orchestral accompaniment. The Te Deum in B (1935–7) and the Coronation Suite (1952) show a luxuriant breadth of melody and harmony, and their ‘purple’ strain is remarkably appropriate. On the other hand, the unaccompanied An Apostrophe to the Heavenly Hosts (1921) establishes an almost Russian breadth and dignity with some medieval overtones. Gloria Deo per immensa saecula (1950) is positively academic by comparison, cast, as it is, in the mould of a prelude and five-part fugue. There are signs of a similar trimming of style in the organ music, though there is a surprising gap, broken only by two small works, between 1916 and 1950, when two sets of six chorale preludes appeared. These show a much more restrained approach, and even the lengthy Passacaglia and Fugue no.2 in E minor (1959) is highly contrapuntal and condensed alongside its earlier companion. Later organ works, like the Five Preludes on Plainchant Melodies (1951) and three sets of ten hymn preludes (1956–8), show the same tautness of construction.
For Hart House Theatre, Willan composed music to 15 plays. A few years later he wrote or assembled the music for five ballad operas. Commissions by the CBC enabled him to continue this interest in dramatic music: Transit through Fire (1941–2) and Brébeuf (1943) were succeeded by his most important work in the genre, the opera Deirdre (1943–5). This was later adapted for the stage and, in this guise, received several performances. Not above criticism for a certain lack of dramatic fire and a general heaviness of scoring, it is nevertheless one of Willan’s greatest achievements. Both in the orchestral parts of these works, and in his compositions for orchestra alone, there is no great change in style to match that noticeable in the church music. The Symphony no.1 (1936) shows strong affinities with earlier manuscripts – indeed one sketch of what later became the first movement dates from c1910. The Second Symphony has been more successful in gaining performances and has also been recorded. Both works have been faulted for a lack of personality in the scoring, but there is no doubt of Willan’s inventiveness in melody and development. The Piano Concerto (1944) is unjustly neglected; couched in the late-Romantic style, it echoes earlier warhorses, yet it has its own tunefulness, display, colour and warmth. Several marches, among them a Coronation March (1936–7), A Marching Tune (1941–2) and Elégie héroïque (1960), show Willan to be a master of the Elgarian formulae of fanfares, development and noble tunes. His output of chamber and piano music is small. A Trio in B minor (1907) has been praised, but part of it is lost. He wrote two violin sonatas, one of which is derivative of late-Baroque forms and idioms. There are numerous sketches for various movements of at least three string quartets; only the slow movement of one was finished, and appeared later as the Poem for string orchestra.
Willan’s influence as a teacher was far-reaching. He taught his many students more by instilling in them taste and discernment rather than rigid sets of rules, though he was quick to castigate those who attempted composition without having learnt the tools of the trade. The quality and sheer bulk of his output was an example for younger composers. Inseparable from his importance as a teacher was the effect of his achievement at St Mary Magdalene. An interest in the uses of plainsong in the vernacular was strengthened by the formation of the Gregorian Association of Canada in 1950 and by the publication of the Canadian Psalter (plainsong edition) in 1963. Willan’s performances of Renaissance music both liturgically, in concert and with the Tudor Singers, introduced a large amount of this music to Canada, while the style of his choirs was much emulated. This influence has also been felt in the USA, where he appeared frequently as a performer and lecturer. While he is probably best known as a composer of church and organ music, Willan made an outstanding contribution to the state of both music and musicians in Canada. The 1990s saw a considerable growth in interest in his liturgical music.
for complete list see Bryant, from which the numbering here is taken
Cleopatra (dramatic scene), op.1, 2 S, A, Bar, SATB, orch, 1907
The Christmas Mysteries (pageant), op.16, children’s vv, SATB, org, c1924
The Beggar’s Opera (J. Gay, arr.), op.19, 1927
L’ordre du bon temps (ballad op, L. de Montigny, trans. J. Murray Gibbon), op.20, 1928
Prince Charlie and Flora (ballad op, Murray Gibbon), op.21, 1929
The Ayrshire Ploughman (ballad op), op.22, n.d.
Maureen (ballad op), op.23, n.d., lost
Indian Christmas Play (ballad op), op.24, n.d., lost
Transit through Fire (radio op, prol., 4 scenes, J. Coulter), op.27, 1941–2, CBC Radio, 8 March, 1942
Brébeuf (pageant, after E.J. Pratt), op.29, 1943, rev. before 1947
Deirdre (op, 3, Coulter), op.30, 1943–5, Toronto, CBC Radio, 20 April 1946, rev. Toronto, 2 April 1965
21 sets of incidental music
The Office of Holy Communion, op.235, SATB, org, 1906; The Office for the Holy Communion, op.236, C, E, SATB, org (1910); Mass of St Peter (Lat.), F, op.238, unison vv, org (1927); Missa de S Maria Magdalena (Eng.), op.239, unison vv, org, (1928); 14 Missae breves, opp.216–29 (Eng.), 1928–63; An Easy Communion Service, E op.240, SATB, org (1929); Mass of St Theresa (Lat.), op.241, unison vv, org (1930); Mass of St Hugh (Eng.), g, op.243, unison vv, org (1935); Communion Service, D, op.244, unison vv (1954); Missa brevis (Eng., Lutheran use), G-g, op.245, TTBB, 1954; Communion Service, D, op.246, unison vv, org, 1955; The Order of Holy Communion (Lutheran use), op.247, SATB, org (1955) [incl. motet Create in me a Clean Heart]; other mass sections; arrs. of masses by Byrd, Merbecke, Viadana
The Dead (H.W. Longfellow), op.302, SSAATTBB (1917); 6 Motets, opp.303–8, SATB (1924): Hail, Gladdening Light; O How Glorious; Very Bread, Good Shepherd, Tend Us; O Sacred Feast; O How Sweet, O Lord; Let us Worship and Fall Down; O Trinity, most Blessed Light, op.309 (1925); Liturgical Motets, opp.310–20, 1928–37: Preserve us, O Lord; O King all Glorious; I Beheld her Beautiful as a Dove; Fair in Face; Rise up, my Love, my Fair One; O King of Glory; Lo, in the Time Appointed; O King, to Whom all Things do Live; Behold, the Tabernacle of God; Hodie, Christus natus est (Today Christ is Born); Who is she that Ascendeth?; Motets, opp.321–2, SSA (1935): O Saving Victim; Look Down, O Lord; Ave verum corpus, op.328, SATB, 1943 [from Brébeuf]; I will Lay me Down in Peace, op.331, SATB, 1949; Christ, our Passover, op.332, SATB, 1950; Grant us They Light, op.333, SATB, 1951; Hosanna to the Son of David, op.335, SATB, 1951; I will Lift up mine Eyes, op.337, SATB, 1951; The Spirit of the Lord, op.336, SATB, 1951; Worthy art Thou, O Lord, op.334, SATB, 1951; Great is the Lord, op.338, SATB, 1952; 7 editions of motets by Batten, Croce, Handl, Hassler, John IV, Ruffo
I looked, and behold a white cloud, op.344, S, T, SATB, 1907; In the name of our God, we will set up our banners, op.348, SATB, 1917; In the heavenly kingdom, op.380, SATB, 1924; A Prayer of Rejoicing, op.357, SATB, 1953; O Lord, our governor, op.358, SATB, 1953; O sing unto the Lord a new song, op.363, B, SATB, 1956
The Reproaches, op.582, SATB (1912); Requiem, op.61, 1914–18 [completed by F.R.C. Clarke]; The Proper of the Year, op.583, 1920–? [plainsong adaptations]; An Apostrophe to the Heavenly Hosts (Easter liturgy), op.584, 1921; The Arts and Letters Club Constitution, op.625, 1v, TTBB, 1922; The Mystery of Bethlehem (cant., A. Riley, J.M. Neale), op.585, S, B, SATB, org, 10 wind, drums, hp/pf, glock ad lib (1923); Te Deum, B, op.53, SSAATTBB, orch, 1935–7; The Tpt Call (A. Noyes), op.53, SATB, orch, 1941; Responsaries for the Office of Tenebrae, op.596, SATB, before 1950; Gloria Deo per immensa saecula, op.593, SSATB, 1950; Introits, op.592, SATB (1950); Coronation Suite (J. Milton, J.E. Ward, lit.), op.57, SSATB, orch, 1952 [incl. motet Ring out ye Crystall Sphears (Milton)]; Canadian Psalter, plainsong edn., op.608, unsion vv (1963); The Introits and Graduals for the Church Year (Lutheran use), op.602, SATB, org (1967); 10 Songs, opp. 676–703, 1v, pf (1967): To Electra (R. Herrick); To Blossoms (Herrick); Dedication (O. Meredith); O Mistress Mine (W. Shakespeare); The Tourney (A. Tennyson); Summer Night (Meredith); 3 Songs (H. Heine); At Dawn (Wilcox); Canticles: Te Deum (3), Benedictus (3), Jubilate (2), Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (29), Benedicte (1), Benedictus es (2); 34 anthems, 30 hymn-anthems, 11 carols, 10 carol arrs., numerous hymns and hymn arrs., other music; 23 partsongs, 13 choral folksong arrs., many other song and solo folksong arrs.
Orch: Coronation March (Marche solennelle), op.71, 1936–7; Sym. no.1, d, op.70, 1936; Sym. no.2, c, op.74, 1936–41, rev. 1948; Suite, op.72, 4 perc, pf (1938); A Marching Tune, op.73, 1941–2; Pf Conc., c, op.76, 1944, rev. 1949; Ov. to an Unwritten Comedy, op.79, 1951; Poem, op.82, str, 1959 [from Str Qt, 1930]; Elégie héroïque, op.83, band, 1960 [scored W. Atkins]; Centennial March, op.84, 1967; several other works, some unfinished
Chbr: Pf Trio, b, op.98, 1907 [pf part of 1st movt lost]; Sonata no.1, e, op.100, vn, pf, 1916; Sonata no.2, E, op.101, vn, pf, before 1921; Poem, op.102, str qt, 1930 [from Adagio of unfinished Str Qt]; 12 other chbr pieces
Kbd (for org, unless otherwise stated): Prelude and Fugue, c, op.146, 1908; Prelude and Fugue, b, op.147, 1909; Variations and Epilogue on an Original Theme, op.126, 2 pf, 1913–15; Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue, op.149, 1916; 12 Chorale Preludes, opp.155–6, 1950–51; 5 Preludes on Plainchant Melodies, op.157 (1951); 10 Hymn Preludes, op.169 (1956); 10 Hymn Preludes, op.173 (1957); 5 Pieces, op.177, 1957–8; A Fugal Trilogy, op.176, 1958; 10 Hymn Preludes, op.174 (1958); Passacaglia and Fugue no.2, e, op.178, 1959; 36 Short Preludes and Postludes on Well-Known Hymn Tunes, opp.180–82 (1960); Andante, Fugue and Chorale, op.184 (1965); many other org works, sets and arrs.; numerous pf pieces, mostly educational
MSS in C-On
Principal publishers: Berandol, Concordia, Fischer, Gray, Macmillan, OUP, Gordon V. Thompson, Waterloo
G.Ridout: ‘Healey Willan’, Canadian Music Journal, iii/3 (1959), 4–14