25 May 2004

Healey Willan's music

One of the greatest Canadian composers of church music was Healey Willan (1880-1968), born in Surrey, England, and longtime organist at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto from 1919 until his death. Although his music is not as well known as that of his contemporary, Ralph Vaughan Williams, it has a stark beauty rooted in the church's ancient tradition of plainsong. It is by no means flashy or unusual music. It owes nothing to some of the more imaginative schools of the 20th century, including polytonality and 12 tone music, although at least one of his pieces manifests the influence of the still new genre of jazz.

EMI Classics

Willan's approach to liturgical music can be found in Giles Bryant's description from the recording whose cover is shown above:

The standard he demanded of his choirs was high. He achieved a blended sound, entirely without vibrato and with a very limited tonal and volume range -- which entirely suited the resonant acoustics of St. Mary Magdalene's. There was never a hint of showing off in the choirs' work -- it was always geared to the needs of the liturgy. Willan was fond of quoting R R Terry, the famous director of music at Westminster Cathedral: "The reason why plainsong is so unpopular in some places is that it gives more glory to God than it does to the choir."

Perhaps so. But a good, well-directed choir singing a simple setting of the mass on an ordinary sunday can send forth as sublime a sound as possible this side of paradise. And Willan's music definitely enhances the choral repertoire. Nancy and I worshipped at St. Mary Magdalene's several years ago. Some three decades after Willan's passing, his music was still being sung and the high standards he imposed on his choirs was being maintained.

There is one mystery surrounding Willan which I have been unable to solve and would welcome any assistance from someone more in the know than I. The text, "Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour," was set by Willan to the tune, ST. OSMUND. There is a widespread belief that Willan composed the tune, and this is reflected in a number of hymnals. However, The Hymn Book of the Anglican Church of Canada says of this tune: "proper melody from the Solesmes version, harmonized by Healey Willan." Is the tune his own, or did he merely arrange it? I'd love to know.

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