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(James) Healey Willan

Composer, organist, choir conductor, teacher
Born: Balham (later a part of London), England, October 12, 1880
Died: Toronto, Canada, February 16, 1968
ARCO 1897, FRCO 1899, Honorary D MUS (Toronto) 1920, Honorary LL D (Queen's) 1952, Honorary D LITT (Manitoba) 1954, Honorary D MUS (Cantuar) 1956, Honorary D LITT (McMaster) 1962, FRSCM 1963, FRHCM 1965.

Healey Willan maintained that he was born with the ability to read music, although his forebears - some of them Irish according to an unsubstantiated family legend - were not musicians but doctors, schoolmasters, and clergymen for the most part. His mother had some musical ability and, when he was four-and-a-half, became his first music teacher, a task she shared with his governness, Miss De Bruin, who taught him five-finger exercises. At eight-and-a-half he entered St Saviour’s Choir School, Eastbourne, as a probationer and progressed so well in his studies that in six months (a record for the school) he became a regular choir boy. He studied piano and organ, harmony and counterpoint, was successively appointed assistant school librarian, librarian, and assistant librarian at the church itself, then attained the envied position of ‘doctor’s boy,’ which entailed assisting the church organist by setting out the proper music, dusting the organ keys, and turning on the pneumatic engine. At 11 he began directing choir practices for boys older than himself and played and conducted for the evensong services at St Saviour’s, alternating with the adult organist. His voice changed at 14, but he was given an extra year’s schooling notwithstanding. When he did take his leave the headmaster and organist-choirmaster, Walter Hay Sangster, paid him what Willan regarded as a high compliment: ‘I shall miss you. You never had a great voice, but you never missed a lead.’

Willan went on to private organ study with William Stevenson Hoyte, organist of All Saints Church in London. Willan credited Sangster and Hoyte with his basic musical education ('unknown men, really, but great teachers') and in later life was fond of quoting remarks of both men, such as Hoyte's 'Any fool can play notes; I want to hear the music!' Willan's natural musical gifts seem to have been congruent with his pleasures: in his mid-teens he would amuse himself by working out double counterpoint, devising a cantus firmus embodying all the possible diatonic intervals, and then doing strict counterpoint of the five species in two, three, four, and five parts above and below the cantus. While studying organ with Hoyte he also studied piano with Evlyn Howard-Jones; he entertained visions of a career as a concert pianist specializing in the music of Brahms, for whose 'dignity, breadth and spaciousness' he felt profound respect; but an injury to his forearm that limited the use of his right hand put an end to that dream.


Willan served as organist-choirmaster at St Saviour's Church, St Alban's, Herts, 1898-1900; Christ Church, Wanstead, 1900-3; and St John the Baptist, Holland Road, Kensington, 1903-13; and gained a reputation as an authority on plainchant in the vernacular (ie, English rather than Latin), an interest that he shared with his friend Francis Burgess, and which was a natural extension of his religious views. Those views had been set in early childhood, when the Church of England was beset by internal conflict between its Protestant and Anglo-Catholic wings, the latter following the teachings of the Oxford Movement. The Willans were ardent supporters of the Anglo-Catholic party, which was bent on re-introducing doctrine and ritual unused in the English church since the reformation. Emotions ran so high that there were riots in the streets, and two members of Willan's family were assaulted physically. This struggle, with its inherent sense of intellectual rigour versus popular sentimentality, informed Willan's attitudes to Christian worship throughout his life. The Anglican church did not allow the use of Latin in its services, but the use of plainsong with English words was acceptable, and Willan spent much time and effort effecting a union between the two. He promoted plainsong in English by example in his churches (except between 1913 and 1921) and by editing, arranging, and publishing it. As an extension of this work he joined the Gregorian Association in London in 1910.


Besides his church work, Healey Willan made his living 1895-1900 as organist to the St Cecilia Society, 1904-6 as conductor of the Wanstead Choral Society, and in 1906 as conductor of the Thalian Operatic Society. He also read proofs for Novello, taught, and composed a variety of music. In 1904 he was elected an associate of the Philharmonic Society of London, which enabled him to attend orchestra rehearsals including those conducted by Arthur Nikisch, who, Willan maintained, was the greatest conductor he ever heard. In 1905 he married Gladys Ellen Hall (see Gladys Willan), a music student, who bore him four children and remained his companion until her death in 1964.


Willan was exposed to his strongest musical influences before the second decade of the 20th century; among continental composers these were Wagner, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky; among British composers Elgar is cited often, but Willan's pupil Godfrey Ridout is probably correct in his assessment that Parry and Stanford had a greater influence on him.

Royal Conservatory of Music, 1950


In 1913 Willan received an invitation from A.S. Vogt, principal of the Toronto Conservatory of Music (TCM, later Royal Conservatory of Music), offering him the position of head of the theory department, to succeed Humfrey Anger. A friend of Vogt had recommended Willan after hearing him play in London. Years later Willan said that the numbers 3 and 13 had played an important part in his life and, since the invitation arrived on the third day of the third month in 1913 when Willan was 33, he decided to accept it; however, though Celtic mysticism (inherited or assumed) was an important element in his personality, it is likely that the decision was based more on economic necessity than on numerology. Three weeks after his arrival in Toronto he accepted the post of organist-choirmaster at St Paul's Anglican Church, Bloor St. In 1914 he was appointed a lecturer and examiner for the University of Toronto. From 1919 to 1925 he served as music director of the university's Hart House Theatre and in that capacity he wrote and conducted incidental music for 14 plays.

Vice-Principal of the TCM.

In 1920 he became vice-principal of the TCM, a post he held until 1936, when he was dismissed during an economy wave (and amid considerable controversy; see Sir Ernest MacMillan). It has been said that Willan was not very effective as a TCM administrator, his interest tending much more strongly to composition and teaching; but some observers maintain that he resigned in protest against TCM internal politicking. In any case, the incident created a coolness between Willan and MacMillan which lasted for a number of years, though eventually they became reconciled. The controversy died down when Willan was appointed to the University of Toronto Faculty of Music in 1937.

In 1921 Willan's friend Father Griffin Hiscocks, rector of the small and impecunious mid-town Anglican Church of St Mary Magdalene, solicited his help in finding an organist-choirmaster. Willan nominated himself, resigned from St Paul's on 12 October (he called the act a birthday present from himself), and began an association with St Mary's that was to last till his death (with the exception of the period August 1941-September 1942). In financial terms the move made no sense whatever, but Father Hiscocks was willing to give him sole charge of all aspects of music, with a free hand to alter the form of service and even the physical structure of the building if necessary. Willan proceeded to institute an Anglo-Catholic style of service-music, a style first made evident in the Christmas services of 1921. He never regretted his decision to take the post; in 1963 he said, 'You have a sense of home, absolute completion... doing the work you want to do and the work you feel you can do.'


Willan was a member of the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto for more than 50 years, and in 1923 he was elected to a one-year term as the club's president. One of his first tongue-in-cheek acts was to set the constitution to music. Willan served 1922-3 and 1933-5 as president of the Canadian College of Organists and later was made honorary president and life member of the Royal Canadian College of Organists. He was university organist 1932-64 at the University of Toronto, in which post he was required to play at convocations and other ceremonial events and also to give a number of recitals for the students each year. His recital programs were respectable, though he didn't regard himself as a brilliant concert organist and claimed he couldn't play his own major works; generally, organ recitals bored him ('The organ is a dull instrument'), and he facetiously remarked that the only ones he could sit through were those he played himself. In 1933 he served as president of the Authors and Composers Association of Canada, and in that same year he founded the Tudor Singers, a 10-voice mixed choir that he conducted in concerts of Renaissance music until late 1939, when World War II forced its disbandment.

In 1936 Willan was appointed chairman of the board of examiners in music at Bishop's University. He taught counterpoint and composition 1937-50 at the University of Toronto and was a guest lecturer in the summers of 1937 and 1938 at the University of Michigan and in the summer of 1949 at the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1943 he was made chairman of the British Organ Restoration Fund, whose aim was to help finance the rebuilding of the organ at Coventry Cathedral. In 1950 he was a co-founder and music director of the Gregorian Association of Toronto. In 1953 he acceded to the request of the Anglican bishop of Toronto to found and become music director of the Toronto Diocesan Choir School.

Coronation of Elizabeth II.


Willan was commissioned to write the homage anthem O Lord, Our Governour for the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953, the first non-resident of Britain to be so honoured. In 1955 he was made an honorary member of the Canadian League of Composers, and in 1956 he received the Lambeth Doctorate from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest award an Anglican musician can receive from his church and the one Willan prized most highly among all his honours. In 1958 he was made a fellow of the Ancient Monuments Society of England; in 1960 the RCCO established a scholarship in his honour; in 1961 he received the Canada Council Medal; and in 1967 he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada and received a diploma from the province of Ontario in recognition of his role in Canadian musical life. The RCCO in 1978 set up a committee to encourage activities marking the centenary of his birth; this evolved into the Healey Willan Centennial Celebration Committee, a group of admirers of Willan, under the chairmanship of Nicholas Goldschmidt, dedicated to organizing events in his name throughout Canada during 1980. On 4 Jul 1980 the Canadian Post Office issued a commemorative stamp bearing a portrait of Willan. With Emma Albani, who was commemorated at the same time, he was the first Canadian musician to be thus honoured.


Healey Willan’s classroom pupils included Ewart Bartley, Howard Brown, Muriel Gidley, Ida Krehm, Glenn Kruspe, Horace Lapp, Scott Malcolm, George Maybee, Adelmo Melecci, Stanley Osborne, David Ouchterlony, Charles Peaker, Monsignor Ronan, Margaret Sargent, Frederick Silvester, Ernest White, and Michael Winesanker. Also among his pupils were a few composers whose styles reflect his influence. These include Gerald Bales, F.R.C. Clarke, Margaret Drynan, Robert Fleming, Patricia Blomfield Holt, Walter MacNutt, and Godfrey Ridout. The influence is less apparent in the works of Louis Applebaum, John Beckwith, Kelsey Jones, William McCauley, Kenneth Peacock, Eldon Rathburn, and John Weinzweig.

Willan’s daughter, Mary Willan Mason, was a founding member of the Junior Vogt Society, which flourished from the late 1930s to 1941. She was executive director of the Ontario Choral Federation 1975-82.


Healey Willan’s reputation rests not only on his compositions but also on his work in other fields. As a teacher he instructed by example and encouragement. Godfrey Ridout observed: “He couldn't teach composition and didn’t try to. Rather, he would engage in dialogue about works and suggest improvements.” Though Willan neither understood nor liked mid-20th-century music (“I hear only strange sounds which surprise and disturb me”) he was able to maintain good relationships with pupils who did. As Applebaum said: “He had no truck with some of the newer things that were going on, but that didn't matter... It never stood in the way of an association between you and him.” As a conductor and choir-trainer he encouraged an appreciation of plainsong and Renaissance music, and his ideals of choral tone were widely emulated. In lectures and articles and, above all, in the example he set at St Mary Magdalene, he waged constant war on unworthy church music. Finally, his stature as a public figure served as an encouragement to musicians of succeeding generations.


Willan often referred to the mass, the central act of worship of his church, as a sacred drama. He also confessed a deep and abiding interest in Wagner. It thus is not surprising that he had a lifelong preoccupation with dramatic music: his 'scena' called Cleopatra dates from 1907, and he was working on The Play of Our Lady not long before his death. He himself regarded the opera Deirdre as his most important work, but this view is not held universally; Deirdre has been criticized for a lack of dramatic thrust and insufficient relief in its scoring, and for wearing its post-Wagnerian mantle too heavily. It is said, moreover, if truistically, that he did not write for the future or perhaps even for his own time. Recognizing this himself, he countered by claiming that beauty is timeless, and that his duty as a composer was to add to that beauty using accepted forms and language, rather than to search out the shape and sound of things to come. Deirdre remains a masterpiece, flawed perhaps, but full of appealing music. It shared with Transit through Fire and Brébeuf an origin as a work commissioned by the CBC for radio. Brébeuf had two subsequent performances in concert. Deirdre was revised quite extensively in 1962 and again in 1964-5 for stage performances and presented in Toronto by Opera in Concert in 1997. The Beggar's Opera, The Order of Good Cheer, and the four ballad-operas all were assembled from folksong sources (including French-Canadian and Native North American), an interest that also found expression in numerous arrangements for solo voice and for choir.

Deirdre, University of Toronto Opera School, 1965
(John McNeill)

The large-scale works for choir and orchestra show strong links with the past. Only occasionally are there hints of the much more personal style that is the mark of the best of his shorter works for unaccompanied choir. Representative of the ‘larger’ style is the Te Deum laudamus in B Flat in which noble elegiac tunes in straightforward harmony combine with bold antiphonal effects in a style reminiscent of Parry and Stanford. The introduction of beautiful lyric lines into this formula (visible perhaps most clearly in ‘Come, Thou Beloved of Christ’ from the Coronation Suite of 1953) recalls Gerald Finzi’s approach to this kind of music. These ingredients also are present in many of the larger works for choir and organ, some of which have alternative accompaniments for instruments. There are several patriotic songs in this category as well as choral ballads and anthems.

Willan’s orchestral and band works reflect the breadth, dignity, and long melodies he admired in Brahms. The shade of Elgar is there, too, but more in melody and in certain harmonic twists than in orchestration. The most frequent criticism of the two symphonies is directed at what is taken to be a weak sense of orchestral colour. Actually, as Godfrey Ridout has pointed out, the music is its own worst enemy in this matter - it seems to fight against glamour in its orchestration. A parallel with the music of Edmund Rubbra comes to mind. The second symphony, in C minor, definitely is the more popular, but the first does not deserve its comparative neglect. Several marches for band or orchestra tend to be conventional. By contrast, the Piano Concerto in C Minor is a surprise. One can find its derivations quite easily, but its vitality, tightness of construction, and flow, coupled with the pyrotechnics of the solo part, make it a work of strong attraction. One cannot claim for it a great depth, but it has immediate appeal and deserves many more hearings. It is significant that a comparison of earlier works in manuscript with later orchestral music shows very few differences in style and approach - indeed, the first movement of the Symphony No. 1 contains music first sketched about 1910.

Few chamber works are extant. A 1974 performance of parts of a Trio in B Minor (1907-15) suggests a very fine work; unfortunately the work is not preserved in its entirety. The Sonata No. 1 in E Minor for violin and piano is a popular work in the late-Romantic tradition, while the later Sonata No. 2 in E is modelled on the Baroque suite. What exists of a projected string quartet, the Poem for string orchestra, makes one wish that more of the work had got past the sketch stage. There are numerous manuscript fragments of works in this genre. The lack of piano music is a disappointment. Only one major work exists: Variations and Epilogue on an Original Theme for two pianos. For the rest, Willan’s piano output is strictly in the educational category.

With the music for organ one enters a different world. Here Willan was thoroughly at home and made a significant and lasting contribution. One work stands out: the monumental Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue of 1916. Said to have been described by Joseph Bonnet as the greatest of its genre since Bach (there is stiff competition from Rheinberger, Reger, and Karg-Elert) this is a virtuoso work of great depth, ingenuity, and variety. It is finely spaced and highly colourful. It represents the culmination of Willan's first period of organ composition, which started ca 1906 with a Fantasia on ‘Ad coenam agni.’ The Preludes and Fugues in C minor and B minor and the Epilogue are the other major works from this period. While not exploring the possibilities of the instrument as searchingly as his masterpiece, they are idiomatic and very typical of their time. They combine an innate Englishness (with a Stanfordian flavour) and a European chromaticism that can be found in Reger and Karg-Elert. (Willan knew and played a few pieces by the latter, but it is doubtful he had heard much Reger at the time he was writing these pieces.)

Willan composed a few small pieces for the instrument over the next four decades, but it was not until 1950 that he returned seriously to organ composition. By then his style was considerably pruned and had become more contrapuntal. Chorale preludes were the most frequent expression 1950-60: Six Chorale Preludes Sets I and II, Five Preludes on Plainchant Melodies, and Ten Hymn Preludes Sets I, II, and III are the major collections. Even in free compositions the economy is evident; typical are A Fugal Trilogy, Five Pieces for Organ, and Andante, Fugue and Chorale. An exception is the Passacaglia and Fugue No. 2, in which he permits himself a more expansive utterance, with a fugue that is arguably his best essay in the form.

The church music takes one into yet another realm. The different religious observances for which he wrote brought forward remarkably different styles. For the Lutheran rite he worked in a simple, straightforward idiom, neither particularly lyrical nor very rich harmonically - a kind of religious Gebrauchsmusik. A Missa brevis in G (1954) is a good example, together with various commissioned sets - 7 motets, 10 anthems, and 7 hymn-anthems. For the regular Anglican services his style was closely related to that of the church composers who were the models of his formative years - the last two decades of the 19th century. Examples, from the first decade of the 20th, are The Office of Holy Communion in G, a Te Deum in B Flat, and the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in B Flat. Later Willan threw off some of the chromaticism and the more overt lyricism of this style and wrote in a simpler diatonic vein with a greater reliance on imitation. Such mid-century works as Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in E Flat, 'Sing We Triumphant Songs,' and 'O Praise the Lord' show the more recent style at its best. Several hymn-anthems from the early 1960s are in similar vein.

The music composed for the Church of St Mary Magdalene is of a different type, reflecting the needs of the Anglo-catholic liturgy and exploiting its suggestions of a more mystical approach. Willan's deep interest in plainsong and polyphonic music, and his belief in their correctness for this type of service, are clearly evident in this music. Modality, melismatic vocal line, rhythmic freedom based on verbal accentuation, and a strong preoccupation with linear shape rather than vertical congruence combine to form a thoroughly personal idiom. It is this that separates this music from the rest of his output and makes it possibly his most important. The clearest examples are the 14 settings of the Missa brevis (1928-63), a set of 11 Liturgical Motets (1928-37), of which the three motets to Our Lady (B312-14) are deservedly the most popular, his many plainsong-with-fauxbourdons settings of the Canticles, and an earlier set of Six Motets and the Responsaries for the Offices of Tenebrae published in 1956.

Healey Willan's work as a practising church musician gave rise to a variety of lesser pieces, including hymn-tunes, sacred songs, fauxbourdons, introits, collections of anthems for junior choirs, and many carols and carol arrangements. Finally, three major works for choir must be mentioned. An Apostrophe to the Heavenly Hosts is a lengthy piece for unaccompanied double chorus with semi-chorus. Its style is unique in Willan's output, contrasting an almost Russian breadth and sonority with passages of very simple chordal writing in antiphony. 'Gloria Deo per immensa saecula' is more classical in form, consisting of a prelude and fugue. A neglected work, The Mystery of Bethlehem, a cantata in six movements, tempts revival.

There are several madrigals and part-songs as well as folksong arrangements for secular choirs, and more than 100 original songs, the vast majority of which are unknown. Willan himself held them in high regard, and they deserve re-examination.


The National Library of Canada became the custodian of the Willan papers in 1970 and mounted an exhibition - 'Healey Willan: The Man and His Music' - in 1972. Coincident with this, the library published the Healey Willan Catalogue compiled by Giles Bryant, the first such catalogue devoted to the work of a Canadian composer. A supplement was issued in 1982. Concurrently there was a surge in Willan research. By 1990, more theses had been written on Willan than on any other Canadian musician, and F.R.C. Clarke wrote a detailed study of Willan's life and music. Clarke also completed and/or orchestrated other works by Willan, including the Requiem, the Dirge for Two Veterans, Hymn to the Sun, and Introduction and Allegro for String Quartet. Willan's status as associate composer is maintained at the Canadian Music Centre.

Article by Giles Bryant, Thomas C. Brown
The Canadian Encyclopedia

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