Healy Willan, In the Heavenly Kingdom: Hymns, Anthems, and Motets
Healey Willan (1880-1968)
Hymns, Anthems and Motets
Healey Willan had a life-long love affair with the human voice – perhaps not surprisingly as his first solid instruction in music came to him as choirboy and he finished his life as an organist and choirmaster. His first published work in 1900 was a Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei in E flat (B 234): practically his last was Anthem for the Centennial of Canadian Confederation (1967) (B 611). Healey Willan Catalogue (1972) lists 787 works. Of these the vast majority is for the voice in some form. At one end of the scale is the full-length opera Deirdre (B 30), at the other a single bar of fauxbourdon for the text 'And was incarnate' in Merbecke's setting of the Creed (B 231a). Perhaps unknown to many people is a body of songs in manuscript (as many as 30), written in the early years of the 20th century. Willan was very proud of these and dearly wished that they could be published and sung. This is not to underplay the importance or beauty of Willan's music, the two Symphonies, the scintillating Piano Concerto in C minor, the Violin Sonata in E minor, and the Trio in B minor, from which, unfortunately, the piano part for the first movement is missing (Is it in anyone's piano bench?), not to mention some of his organ music. When you look at the many articles and theses written about Willan, the dominant topic, though, is his sacred music.
Willan's earliest church works show the influence of the music that he sang and played in his youth. 'I looked, and behold a white cloud' (B 344) (1907) is a wonderfully dramatic and tuneful work. When we get to the big tune it is redolent of Parry or Stanford, and starts with a recitative worthy of S.S. Wesley's 'The Wilderness'; this was, coincidentally, Willan's audition test to get into his Choir School.
Born in England and an organist at several churches there, Healey Willan moved to Canada in 1913. He was appointed the Organist and Choirmaster at St Paul's Church, Toronto. His compositional style at the time remained similar to that of his earlier work. The motet 'How they so softly rest' (B 302) (1917) was written for the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. It is not until we get to the end of this piece that a new influence is discernible, that of Russian choral music with its massing of widely spaced block harmony. This trait in Willan's music reached a high point in 'Apostrophe to the heavenly host', written for the same choir. 'In the heavenly kingdom' (B 380), dated July 1924 but left unfinished, was completed by F.R.C. Clarke in 1979 – chastely he adds only 22 bars of 'Alleluia'. Much harks back to 'Apostrophe' (1921), massive chordal effects, the use of a Mystic Choir and the introduction of a hymn-tune, 'Coelites plaudant', to prepare for the climax of the work. A new feature is the careful use of elements of this tune elsewhere in the work; it sometimes 'cleanses' the harmony, so that the chromatic sections make even more of an impact.
In 1921 Willan moved to the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Toronto. Now his church music takes on a different ethos; no longer is he aiming at the big effects with extensive divisi of the choir and adventurous organ accompaniments. Intimacy and a devout brevity become the features of what are now unaccompanied motets. His first set in this newer style is the 6 Motets of 1924. 'O how glorious' (B 304) is typical. Whilst showing signs that he is still seeking a new liturgical expression, we can see that the words are now propelling the music and the clarity of the counterpoint never obscures their meaning. This is 20th-century Palestrina, or perhaps to be a little more honest, Giovanni Croce. It took four years for this kind of writing to develop to the next stage: now mysticism and a quiet awe, achieved by delicate melisma and an enriched harmony, mark the socalled eleven Liturgical Motets (1928-1937). 'Preserve us, O Lord' (B 310) is the first of these and the new style is audible. With 'O King all glorious (B 311)' we can see the wonderful matching of the melodic line to the full meaning of the words, the clever contrasts of counterpoint and block harmony and the drive to the climax followed by a mystical final cadence. About 'Rise up my love' (B 314) one can only say that it is quite justifiably Willan's most popular choral work; everything is perfectly in place, melodic shape, verbal accentuation, harmony at the service of meaning and a marvelous ending.
Willan still wrote music for the church outside St Mary's. 'Christ hath a garden' (B 352) was published in 1940 and can be viewed as intended for a modest parish church choir, a beautiful tune, simple organ accompaniment, with a whiff of the 'big' Willan in the middle (the trademark is always the bass line descending chromatically) and quiet restful ending. By contrast 'Sun of righteousness' (B 438) is a concert piece for a professional choir. Here we have a much more challenging text, extensive divisi, wide tessiturae and hard-to-tune chromatics. These passages remind us of another influence on Willan, that of Delius, though this is rarely present in his church music. The motet 'Who is she that ascendeth' is the famous exception.
Willan wrote a great deal of fairly simple music for the Lutheran church, including several hymn-anthems, but there is a much bolder set from a later date, that explores the genre more extensively. The 'Hymn Anthems on "Ye watchers and ye holy ones"' (B 403), 'Picardy' (B 405) and 'O quanta qualia' (B 394) all follow a roughly similar form, a straightforward presentation of the tune, one or two middle verses in contrasting voicings and a grandly harmonized last verse. In at least two cases these 'varied' harmonies represent Willan's own ways of accompanying the last verses of these hymns. He also wrote a Hymn Anthem on the tune 'St Osmund' (B 449) but on this recording we hear it sung straightforwardly to the words "Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour", for which it was written in 1927. It has become Willan's most popular hymn-tune.
For the Anglican Congress, held in Toronto in 1963, Willan revisited his 'grand style' with the anthem 'O praise the Lord' (B 377). Like Wesley and Stainer before him. Willan took his text from many scriptural sources, thus giving himself opportunities for structural variety. Contrast is assured with bold four-part choruses, chant-like passages, a beautiful tune for the soprani and a fugal finale, based upon the opening material, which works to a fine exultant ending.
And now we return to the Church of St Mary Magdalene. For the services of this church, Willan composed between 1928 and 1963, 14 settings of the Missa Brevis. They were all written 'with the stop-watch in hand' as Willan put it, never over-lengthy or impeding the flow of the Mass. Most are quite simple, in four parts, but two of them spread themselves a little and were used on major Feast days, whilst still observing Willan's self-imposed time limits. Missa Brevis No XI (Missa Sancti Johannis Baptistae) (B 226) uses two soprano lines for the most part and there are other divisi – it is the most complicated of the 14. The Sanctus is perhaps the most remarkable section, with answering phrases for upper and lower quartets. For many, these Missa Brevis settings are the heart and soul of Willan's church music. They wonderfully illustrate those famous words, 'a true church music is beautifully fit and fittingly beautiful'.