The ascetic apse of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto, dominated by its immense rood cross, supplied a striking backdrop to Willan 50, a musical tribute on the 50th anniversary of the death of Healey Willan, the influential Anglo-Canadian composer.
Born in 1880 in Balham, England, Dr. Willan moved to Canada in 1913 and bequeathed a prolific multi-genre legacy of some 850 musical works. In addition to appointments at the University of Toronto, the then Toronto Conservatory of Music, and St. Paul, Bloor Street, the virtuoso organist served for 47 years as music director of St. Mary Magdalene, for which he composed a large body of liturgical music.
“Willan was a humble genius and is considered the dean of Canadian composers,” said Canon Giles Bryant, a former organist and music director at the church and the master of ceremonies at the packed Feb. 16 concert. Drawing on a biography by Frederick Clarke, Canon Bryant included lively observations on Dr. Willan’s life as an artist and interspersed them with his own expert commentary.
Over his artistic life, Dr. Willan turned his versatile hand to opera, orchestral and band music, tone poems, string quartets and at least 66 songs. “Tonight, though, on this anniversary we celebrate his achievement as a preeminent composer of music created for the beautification and enhancement of church services,” said Canon Bryant.
The program featured three genres: choral music, organ compositions, and Gregorian plainchant. According to Canon Bryant, Dr. Willan loved plainchant and led the way in its return to Anglican liturgy in Canada.
The concert opened with Dr. Willan’s choral piece for the Feast of Dedication, “Behold, the Tabernacle of God Is with Men,” and closed with the vocal prelude and fugue “Gloria Deo Per Immensa Saecula,” sung by choristers from St. Mary Magdalene and St. Thomas, Huron Street and conducted by the latter church’s music director, Matthew Larkin.
The program also featured Dr. Willan’s beautiful setting of Isaac Watts’s 18th century hymn “Christ Hath a Garden.”
Mr. Larkin performed the first organ work on the program, Dr. Willan’s “Prelude and Fugue in C Minor,” published in 1909 in Novello’s series of virtuoso organ works. Thanks to a large video screen, the audience was able to follow the complex keyboarding of the double-fugue composition, described by Canon Bryant as “a grand, sweeping piece with huge drama borne along with very, very confident harmony and daring chromatic inflections.”
From the organ loft, the gallery and ritual choirs of St. Mary Magdalene chanted Gregorian plainsong, including the Candlemas introit, “We Have Waited, O God.”
After the choir sang Dr. Willan’s melodic rendition of the mystical Revelations-based anthem “I looked, and Behold a White cloud,” the second featured organist, Simon Walker, played the composer’s “Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue in E flat minor,” which has been called the most significant example of the genre since Bach.
According to Canon Bryant’s biographical account, Dr. Willan was challenged to write this work after a companion at a recital featuring a German passacaglia said that only a Teutonic mind was capable of a composition of this type, which consists of a set of variations above a fixed-pedal bass line. “His reaction was apoplectic,” said Canon Bryant, and the result was this Bach-like “staggeringly marvellous work… with 17 variations of incredible ingenuity… and a fugue using the same subjects as the passacaglia,” he said.
Noting that Dr. Willan’s music remains integrally woven into the fabric of worship at St. Mary Magdalene, the Rev. Canon David Harrison, incumbent, read praise for Dr. Willan’s achievements from the Rt. Hon. Adrienne Clarkson, a former governor general of Canada. He also read an affecting account of her father’s last hours by his only daughter, Mary Willan Mason, from her memoir The Well-Tempered Listener, and introduced Dr. Willan’s eldest grandson and his great-grandson.
Andrew Adair, the music director at St. Mary Magdalene, played the third organ composition, Dr. Willan’s “Passacaglia and Fugue in E Minor,” written in 1959 and reminiscent in technique to the C minor composition of 1909.
“Gloria Deo,” the closing vocal piece, was written in 1950 and, inexplicably, commissioned by the Village of Forest Hill’s community centre. “I have absolutely no idea what provoked them but, by God, they got a wonderful piece out it!” said Canon Bryant. Dr. Willan apparently composed the fugue after a comment by a fellow organist that no one could write in five parts any more. “Well, poppycock,” the supreme contrapuntalist allegedly replied, and the result was this transporting polyphonic fugue.