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Healey Willan: The Dean of Canadian Composers

For the week of Monday October 6, 2008

On October 12, 1880, Healey Willan was born in Balham, Surrey, England. Willan would become one of Canada’s leading composers and teachers of both secular and religious works.

Healey Willan
© The Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto
Music was always part of Willan’s life. He claims that he was born with the ability to read music. By the age of five, he was receiving music lessons from his mother and governess. At the age of eight, Willan was accepted to St. Saviours Choir School in Sussex, England. Due to his natural talent he was given full admission after a six-month trial, a record for the school. Willan studied piano, organ, harmony and counterpoint.

In the early years of Willan’s career, he played organ for a number of churches in England. He also began to create original compositions, writing more than 800 by the end of his career. In 1913, Willan accepted a position at the Toronto Conservatory of Music as head of the theory department and moved to Canada, later becoming the vice-principal. Willan also accepted a position as organist at St. Paul’s Anglican Church. Additionally, he was hired as a lecturer and examiner at the University of Toronto in 1914, becoming the music director in 1919.  Later he would serve as the University’s organist, playing at ceremonial events.

In 1921, Willan left St. Paul’s to accept a position as an organist and choirmaster at the Anglican Church of St. Mary Magdalene. The move gave Willan full control to create the type of church music that expressed his Anglo-Catholic faith. The Anglo-Catholic division of the Anglican Church involved members who wished to revive the use of Gregorian Chants from the Catholic tradition. St. Mary Magdalene’s elaborate services gave Willan the opportunity to translate the chants into English and create his own ceremonial service. 

The Church of St. Mary Magdalene
© torontohistory.org/ Alan L. Brown, 2006

In 1953 Willan was commissioned to write O Lord, Our Gouverneur for the coronation of Elizabeth II, the first non-resident of Britain to be honoured. One of Willan’s most treasured honours was the Lambeth Doctorate awarded by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1956, the highest award in the Church an Anglican musician can receive.

Willan passed away in 1968 but, in 1980, celebrations were planned across Canada to celebrate the centennial of his birth and a commemorative stamp was released. In 1984, Healey Willan was designated as a National Historic Person for his important contributions to the Canadian music scene as a teacher, composer and organist.

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