2013-01-27 Notes from the Bench

“Behold, the Tabernacle of God” by Healey Willan
A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James Gerber, Music Associate

The British-Canadian organist and composer, Healey Willan (1880-1968) was known as the “Dean of Canadian composers” during his lifetime. Willan’s oeuvre consists of over 800 titles that include operas, symphonies, and chamber music, as well as works for orchestra, organ, and piano. However, he is best known for his religious choral music; compositions that are among the standard repertoire of many church and concert choirs today.

“Behold, the Tabernacle of God” is among the many commissions Willan received; this work written for the Hundredth Anniversary Festival of the Church of St. James in Chicago (now the cathedral parish) and dedicated to their organist and choirmaster at that time, Leo Sowerby.

Willan was born in the Balham neighborhood in southwest London. At the age of eight, he was enrolled in the choir school of St. Saviour’s in Eastbourne where he studied piano, organ, harmony and counterpoint. In 1897, he was admitted to the Royal College of Organists and was made a Fellow of this organization in 1899. In 1913, he immigrated to Toronto, Canada upon receiving an invitation to head the theory department of the Toronto Conservatory of Music (now the Royal Conservatory of Music). In 1920, he was named the vice-principal of the conservatory, a post he held until 1936. In addition to his duties at the conservatory, he was also a lecturer and examiner at the University of Toronto and later, in 1937, appointed to the faculty as a professor of music and university organist.

From 1921 until his death, Willan was the organist, choir master, and precentor (the person who is in charge of preparing worship services) for the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto, a high church, Anglo-Catholic parish. The liturgical style of St. Mary’s under Willan’s influence attracted many other church musicians who visited there to experience the master at work. Most of his religious compositions were written in connection with his duties there.

Willan received numerous honorary doctoral degrees during his life. In 1956, he received the Lambeth Doctorate, Mus. D Cantaur, an academic degree conferred by the Archbishop of Canterbury under the authority of Ecclesiastical Licenses, in recognition of his service to the church. This degree is the highest honor an Anglican musician can receive and one Willan greatly treasured.

Willan’s choral works show evidence of his love of plainsong and Renaissance music and are a rich combination of styles; homage to the sacred music from five centuries ago combined with the innovations of the romantic and post-romantic eras. Willan’s style of choral writing utilizes the church modes, melismatic vocal lines (singing multiple notes on a single syllable of text), contrapuntal writing and rhythmic freedom, that is combined with elements of romanticism and a rich harmonic palette. As a composer, Willan was not an innovator seeking to create the types of new sounds many of his contemporaries were, but rather sought to create beauty that is timeless by using the accepted musical forms and harmonic language of his day.

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