October 12, 1880 - February 16, 1968
born in Balham, London, England, composed during the Modern period
Long-lived composer Healey Willan is best known for his liturgical music, though his output of more than 800 works includes most genres: opera, symphony, chamber, organ, piano, band, incidental scores, song, folk-song arrangements, and much else. More than half of those 800 efforts were sacred works for choir and organ, used for Anglican church services. Most were anthems, hymns, motets, mass settings, and other such religious fare. Stylistically, Willan was a conservative whose music divulged the influence of Wagner and post-Romanticism in general. Born in England, he migrated to Canada and there became probably the most influential composer of liturgical music of his time. His influence spread across North America, spilling over into the musical traditions of most major denominations. Although Willan's compositions are not commonly encountered in the concert hall, renewed interest in his liturgical music since the 1990s offers hope to his admirers that even his concert music may enjoy rediscovery.
(James) Healey Willan was born in Balham, London, England, on October 12, 1880. He studied at St. Savior's Choir School from 1888-1895, learning organ, piano, and choral directing. Additional organ study with W.S. Hoyte followed, and in 1899 Willan was awarded a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists (FRCO).
In 1903 Willan was appointed organist and choirmaster at St. John the Baptist, Holland Road. In 1913 he emigrated to Canada to serve as organist at St. Paul's Church and to head the theory department at the Canadian Conservatory.
Willan had composed at least two masses, numerous anthems and hymns, and much instrumental music by this time, but his output in the liturgical realm would swell immensely, especially after 1921, the year he resigned his post at St. Paul's to become choir director at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene.
Willan would serve in the post for the remainder of his life, providing countless works for services at this historic church. But he concurrently held other posts: from 1919-1925, music director at Hart House Theatre; from 1934-1939, director of the Tudor Singers, a group he founded; and from 1920-1964, several high posts at both the Canadian Conservatory and Toronto University.
In 1953 Willan produced one of his more popular works, O Lord, our Governor, an anthem he was commissioned to write for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Willan last conducted the choir at St. Mary Magdalene in 1967. He died on February 16, 1968. ~ Robert Cummings, Rovi