The English-Canadian composer Healey Willan had a life long love of sacred music. Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony and organ music were his lifeblood. The "Dean of Canadian Composers" wrote over 850 works, including operas, symphonies, songs, chamber music, and more besides. Yet, one might argue that his church music is most beloved. Many a choir has in its library at least one 'chestnut' from Heaely Willan. Over his lifetime, he was commissioned to write many sacred compositions for festivals, convocations, and events. A review of his timeline shows how this "Man of Music" whose heart beat with melody day and night, was deeply committed to glorifying God through the gift God gave him -- music!
Shortly before he died in 1968, Willan asked his daughter, Mary Willan Mason, to take the responsibility of promoting his musical legacy. This entailed making a complete catalog of his works, first published in 1972. Ms. Mason enlisted the help of Giles Bryant. Together they worked in concert with the National Library of Canada to publish a catalog of his works. The National Library received from the Willan family all of Willan's manuscripts as a national treasure of Canada.
In 2011, Mary Willan Mason passed the baton to the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius with me as Trustee of his Estate, asking me to take the responsibility of promoting his musical legacy for the years to come. As we formed the Healey Willan Society for the purpose of promoting Willan's music, I began to imagine what ways we might rejuvenate interest in Willan's music. In 2018, fifty years after his passing, we have brought Willan's catalog into the 21st century and put the full catalog of his works online with a new website dedicated to the Willan and his music.
There have been some excellent film documentaries made on Willan's music in past years. The Healey Willan Society has now made a documentary (The Man Behind the Music) with Mary Willan Mason, to tell Willan's story from her own perspective. Dr. Ruben Valenzuela and Angel Mannion are in the process of making another documentary during this 50th anniversary year (sample video), with interviews of those who knew Willan, from colleagues to choristers.
To mark the 50th anniversary of Willan's death, many musical organizations and concert artists have been performing his music in church services and in concert. A review of the 2018 music schedules of St. John Cantius in Chicago (here and here) shows how the parish choirs have taken special interest in promoting Willan's music in 2018. In San Diego, a monumental effort has been organized to showcase Willan's music through Willan West 2018The Healey Willan Society is taking efforts to make a record of any and all use of Willan's music, publishing a calendar of events on its site. To this end, organists, choirs, and other musical groups from around the world are invited to submit any 2018 events (including past events) to be included in the calendar of events, in order that a complete record might be kept.
Biretta Books has commissioned new choral works in homage to Willan. Composer Stephanie Martin has written a new anthem entitled, "An Earthly Tree," which will be premiered on December 4 and 5, 2018, by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Nicholas White is writing an arrangement of traditional carols entitled "Angel Carols," which will be premiered at Lessons and Carols at St. John Cantius in Chicago on December 15, 2018. Ed Frazier Davis is composing a new setting of "Ave Verum" and "Maria, Mater Gratiae" for Biretta Books. Stephen Cleobury is also preparing a new musical compositions, which will be dedicated to honor Healey Willan. These works will be soon available at Biretta Books.
The Healey Willan Society also sponsored a composition competition for the students at the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi, Torino earlier this year. Professor Ruo Rui selected the best four student compositions for consideration. Camilla Andrea Piovano's setting of "Maria Mater Gratiae" was chosen as the winning composition.
While Willan's music continues to be published by Oxford University Press, C.F. Peeters, Concordia, and others, the Willan Estate has many works it is re-publishing thanks to the assistance of the Healey Willan Society and Biretta Books in Chicago. Among the organ works, canticles, and motets, Biretta Books also is providing publication of Willan's beautiful choral Masses. Some of Willan's Masses were written for the Roman liturgy. For example, Willan enjoyed friendship with the Basilian Fathers in Toronto, taught them Gregorian chant, and assisted them in the preparation and publication of the New St. Basil Hymnal in the 1950's. For this hymnal he wrote the Mass of St. Theresa and other new hymns.
While most of Willan's a capella Masses were written in English for the Anglican liturgy, these Masses are easily adapted and arranged with Latin texts, making it possible to sing these beautiful works in the Roman liturgy. Biretta Books publishes both the original English versions (which are being used by parishes of the Anglican Ordinariate) and Latin versions, such as the Missa Sancti Michaelis, for use in the Roman Rite. Besides Willan's a capella Masses, which are choral gems, there exist in his catalog other Masses which have not seen the light of day in decades. In 2018 many more of these editions will be released at Biretta Books.
For more information about the work of the Healey Willan Society please see our website or contact us.
Fr. Scott A. Haynes, SJC
Estate of Healey Willan, Trustee
Healey Willan Society, President