Healey Willan was born
in England and trained privately as an organist, going to
hold a number of posts England before immigrating to Canada
in 1913. There he was appointed Organist and Choirmaster
at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Toronto. In 1921 he moved
to the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto. Though the
church was smaller, Willan was given a free hand with the
music and had influence on the shape of the liturgy. The
result was an Anglo-Catholic style of service music. Willan
was associated with the church until his death.
Willan was a prolific composer,
writing nearly 800 surviving pieces. Though his music includes
symphonies, concertos and chamber music, it is with the human
voice that his is primarily associated. This new disc from
the Canadian group, the Elora Festival Singers, includes
a wide selection of his choral music.
The disc opens with In
the Heavenly Kingdom, a grand, expansive piece with
a big organ part. Though the piece was written in 1924,
it was left unfinished and completed in 1979 by F.C. Clarke.
The scale of the piece is representative of Willan’s work
from the early part of his time in Canada and is redolent
of large scale English influences such as Parry or Stanford.
Stanford and Parry are also evident in one of his English
church works, I looked and behold a white cloud which
dates from 1907. This early style is still evident in How
they so softly rest from 1917, though by the end we
get hints of the widely spaced block harmony of Russian
Willan’s style seriously
changed once he had moved to St. Mary Magdalene. He no longer
strained after grand effects; intimacy and brevity are paramount
and the music is usually unaccompanied. O How Glorious (from Six
Motets of 1924) is a worthy essay in translating Palestrina’s
counterpoint into 20th century terms, but as a
motet it comes into the useful category rather than memorable.
His later exercises in
this genre, such as Preserve us, O Lord, O King
glorious and Rise up my Love from his Eleven
Liturgical Motets (1928 – 1937) display a far more confident
handling in this area. But here we reach a certain limitation
in the performances. The choir, The Elora Festival Singers,
are a professional group based in Toronto. They make a fine,
clean sound that works fine in such pieces as In the Heavenly
Kingdom where shape and clarity are paramount. In Sun
of Rightousness, which Willan wrote in the 1940s as a
concert piece for professional choir, the accuracy and clarity
of the choir mean that the high, transparent textures of
the piece come over magically.
But in these motets written
for St. Mary Magdalene, what I wanted was more intensity,
more feeling, a sense that the music was being performed
by a choir for whom the mass meant something. Though I admired
Willan’s music, I was left feeling something was lacking;
I would love to hear these pieces sung by the choir of Westminster
Willan’s Missa Brevis included
on this disc was one of fourteen Missa Brevises that he wrote.
This work is the most complicated work of the 14, using two
soprano lines and divisi in other parts. It sounds the sort
of attractive work which would be useful to many choirs.
But, as with the motets, the choir’s performance seems a
little to clean and lacking in fervour or intensity.
Christ hath a Garden (1940) is another piece written for outside St. Mary Magdalene, but
this time for a modest parish church choir. O Praise the
Lord (1963) saw Willan revisiting his grand style for
the Anglican Congress held in Toronto that year.
The choir also include
a number of Healey Willan’s hymns. His most popular tune,
St. Osmund, is sung straight but the others are sung in arrangements
(Hymn Anthems) produced by Willan. These Hymn Anthems generally
consist of a straightforward presentation of the tune, some
verses in a variety of scorings and then a final, grandly
harmonised verse. These hymns are useful as a testament to
Willan’s talent but I am not sure that the arrangements are
interesting enough to stand in their own right. But then,
I’m not very fond of hymns sung by choirs on disc.
I wish that I could be
more enthusiastic about this disc. Noel Edison and his choir
give a fine musical performance of this music, good as far
as it goes but I wanted far more. I never really did get
that sense of mysticism and quiet awe that Giles Bryant,
in his liner notes, says that Willan brought to the best
of his sacred music. But then again, Willan’s music is not
well represented in the current catalogue and the Elora Festival
Singers do enable us to listen to his music in clean, shapely,
see also reviews by Jonathan
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