10 December, 2008
Healey Willan was a Canadian organist and composer. He composed more than 800 works including operas, symphonies, chamber music, a concerto, and pieces for band, orchestra, organ, and piano. He is best known for his religious music.
He was born in Balham, London and emigrated to Canada in 1913 to become the head of the theory department at the Canadian Conservatory of Music (now the Royal Conservatory of Music) in Toronto. In addition, he took the post of organist and choirmaster at Saint Paul's Church.
Willan became interested in the music program at another Anglican church, the Church of St. Mary Magdalene. St. Paul's was an evangelical, low church; St. Mary Magdalene's, while much smaller, was notably high church or Anglo-Catholic. By 1920 Willan was assisting with choir practice. In 1921 he resigned his post at St. Paul's and turned his attention to St. Mary Magdalene's. He set about creating a great many liturgical works for use in the church's services. He remained at St. Mary Magdalene's until shortly before his death, last directing the choir in 1967.
In 1953 he was invited to submit an anthem for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the second, O Lord, Our Governour. This remains one of his most frequently performed pieces. In 1956 he received the Lambeth Doctorate from the Archbishop of Canterbury; he became one of the first members of the Order of Canada in 1967.
People who remember Willan from his time at St Mary Magdalene's like to moderate his somewhat dourly pious public image by quoting him -- it was a mainstay of concert talks by Robert Hunter Bell -- as to his provenance: "English by birth; Canadian by adoption; Irish by extraction; Scotch by absorption."