Healey Willan   1880-1968
Peerless Ecclesiastical Composer

The medieval cathedrals, churches, colleges, and choirs of Europe gave birth to a musical tradition that continues to resonate around the world. Masses, choral works, and organ compositions remained cloistered largely within the sanctuaries of the Christian church, but operas, orchestral works, madrigals, and folk songs flourished in the secular world. Healey Willan, one of the great composers of the twentieth century, transformed, interpreted, adapted, and composed works that sustained a tradition and took it to new dimensions. Composing more than 800 works including operas, symphonies, chamber music, a concerto, and pieces for band, orchestra, and piano, Willan was a consummate artist, a musician, composer, teacher, and conductor.

Viewed here playing the great Casavant organ in Convocation Hall, Healey Willan was organist for the University of Toronto, 1932-1964, giving recitals, presiding over ecumenical events and all graduations. [Photo, courtesy The Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto]

Born in 1880, in Balham, Surrey, now a part of London, England, Healey grew up in a musical family, learned to play piano and organ, and attended St. Saviour’s Choir School. As an organist and choirmaster within the Anglican church who supported the Oxford Movement which promoted Anglo-Catholic doctrine and ritual, he revived plainsong (or the Gregorian chant). He also edited and arranged Latin songs for English rendition, conducted choral and operatic societies outside the church, and was an esteemed member of the Gregorian Association from 1910.

Willan emigrated to Canada in 1913, accepting an offer to teach at the Toronto Conservatory where he served as vice principal (1920-1936) and became, in 1914, a lecturer, and, later, until 1950, a professor at the University of Toronto. In spite of Willan’s ecclesiastical beginnings, he considered a career as a concert pianist. As music director of Hart House Theatre at the university between 1919 and 1925, he wrote and conducted incidental music for 14 plays.

In 1913 Willan accepted the position of organist-choirmaster at the prestigious St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Bloor Street, Toronto, but jumped at the opportunity of serving a high Anglican church, the church of St. Mary Magdalene in the same city. Although he received less remuneration, he had far greater freedom in choosing the music, the form of worship, and even alterations to the building. As he commented in 1963, “You have a sense of home, absolute completion ... doing the work you want to do and the work you feel you can do.” Willan remained as choirmaster for 46 years and it was there that Willan became a legend, creating two choirs (chancel and gallery) for special effects and playing a Casavant organ adapted for his tastes within a church structure designed for his purposes.

This Healey Willan caricature was sketched by A.Y. Jackson on the back cover of a catalogue while both were attending the opening of the Maurice Cullen Exhibition at the Hamilton Art Gallery in 1956. [Photo, courtesy Mary Willan Mason]

Writer and broadcaster Kenneth Winters described arriving at a Willan concert as a reviewer 15 minutes early and being unable to get in. “The hall was packed to bursting. All I could do was return to the office and write a brief disconsolate account of listeners standing in the aisles and hanging from the rafters, and no room for me. The lesson, which may still but should not surprise us, is that Willan’s music has an audience, and that his music for the church can engage and touch a listener who may never set foot in a church.”

In 1922 a correspondent for the Montreal Standard wrote of St. Mary Magdalene as the “most advanced” Anglican Church in Canada where the music was “an inspiration, an uplift, and a delight.” The church vestry informed Bishop Sweeney in 1930 that the parish church had acquired a worldwide reputation for musical perfection and “All visiting artists, whether English, American, or continental European, come to St. Mary Magdalene’s to hear the choirs.” Saturday Night magazine in 1940 quoted an American stage star playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre: “There are only two places in Toronto really worth visiting. One of them is the Chinese Collection at the Royal Ontario Museum and the other is the Church of St. Mary Magdalene.”

The crowning achievements for Healey Willan were his being commissioned to write the homage anthem, “O Lord, Our Governour,” for the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953; his receiving in 1956 the highest award an Anglican musician can attain, the Lambeth Doctorate from the Archbishop of Canterbury; and his being, in 1967, among the first Canadians to be honoured as a Companion of the Order of Canada. Many of his students became great musicians, including Louis Applebaum, Robert Farnham, and Godfrey Ridout. In 1980 Willan and Emma Albani shared the distinction of being the first musicians to be commemorated on a Canadian postage stamp.

Healey Willan was sometimes marginalized by contemporary Canadian composers and musical experts as a “church composer” who was more interested in transferring traditional medieval themes from Europe than in stirring a Canadian imagination. To the fine ear of a classicist, however, Willan with a mystical touch and a polyphonic approach within the ecclesiastical boundaries of musical tradition is one of this century’s most significant composers. Like many Canadians, he was touched by several influences. He once commented, “I am English by birth, Irish by extraction, Canadian by adoption, and Scotch by absorption.”

Larry Turner