About this Recording
8.557375 - WILLAN: Organ Works
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Healey Willan (1880–1968)
Organ Works


James Healey Willan was born on 12 October 1880, in Balham, a suburb of London. He shared his birth month and day with the great Ralph Vaughan Williams, who meant to meet Willan when he was given his Lambeth Doctorate, but was prevented by ill health. Willan’s father was a pharmacist, and no one else in the family was a professional musician. His parents, however, recognised and encouraged their son’s evident musical aptitude.

The family parish church was of a high-church or Anglo-Catholic bent, which meant that Willan was exposed in his early years to the centuries-old Gregorian chant of the church, a body of literature which remained dear to him all his life. Entering a boys’ school at the age of nine, he heard harmonized Anglican chant for the first time and, thinking the students were playing a practical joke, laughed out loud in Chapel, for which he was soundly reprimanded. He began composing at an early age, though not with a prodigy’s instant ability, and developed an early career as a church organist and composer, while marrying and raising a family of three sons. Even his appointment, however, to a prominent Anglo-Catholic parish in London did not bring him a salary sufficient for his family’s needs, so he readily accepted an invitation to become the head of the theory department of the Toronto Conservatory of Music, and the Willans moved to Canada in 1913.

Willan was not altogether impressed with the musical life of Toronto when he arrived, but he went to work and quickly established himself as an esteemed player, composer, teacher and church musician.

Within three weeks of his arrival he was appointed to St Paul’s, Bloor Street, a building of cathedral proportions, and in 1914 the Casavant Frères installed a formidable organ which was to inspire some of his finest works. He was an active recitalist throughout North America all his life, and was for decades University Organist for the University of Toronto.

On Advent Sunday 1921 Willan took up a new church position which was to be the heart of his musical and personal life until his death 47 years later, the Anglo-Catholic parish of St Mary Magdalene. Here he fostered his love of plainsong, and wrote the exquisite unaccompanied choral motets and masses which are among the best of his works. At the same time he had an active secular career which won him much adulation. In 1926 Lawrence Mason of the Toronto Globe wrote: “Until the advent of Dr Willan, Canada did not possess a creative genius of Dr Willan’s art standard, and today he stands in the front rank among living composers”. While this reflects a perhaps unfortunate colonialism, Willan became widely referred to as the “Dean of Canadian composers”. He received many degrees and awards, including a Lambeth Doctorate, presented by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and, in 1967, one of the very first Orders of Canada.

It is true that his output is formidable, and he was quoted as stating he could write music “anywhere, any time, regardless of noise or disturbance”. His compositions include two symphonies, two operas, a piano concerto, chamber music, dozens of songs, suites for string orchestra and wind band, music for piano and piano duet, large works for choir and orchestra, all this in addition to an extraordinary number of liturgical works for choir and organ. Nevertheless it remains for the latter that he is chiefly remembered, and even here, only the monumental Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue is regularly heard in concert or recorded. It is hoped that this recording will acquaint the listener with some of the other riches awaiting discovery from this master of counterpoint and of the romantic gesture.

The Prelude and Fugue in C minor (1908) is one of Willan’s early masterpieces, showing a remarkable contrapuntal facility. The prelude is based on the material of the first four measures and is developed in fully Wagnerian style. A double fugue (with two distinct subjects) follows: the first theme, based on the beginning motif of the prelude, is unusually presented in the bass by the organ pedals; the second enters in fleet semiquavers, and is always accompanied by a third countersubject. Now Willan’s mastery shines as he combines all the material in increasing tension; a dominant pedal-point results, a sustained note in the bass over which the harmonies roam freely, leading to a final thunderous statement of all three themes combined. The coda recapitulates the opening of the prelude in a blaze of full organ.

Willan wrote over a hundred pieces based on hymn melodies in the last seventeen years of his life, many of them to commission by various publishers. Two sets of six pieces each were published by Concordia Press in the early 1950s, and have remained among the most played of his output in this genre. His Prelude on a Melody of Orlando Gibbons (1950) presents the gentle tune in the soprano over a flowing accompaniment.

It is generally conceded that the Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue (1916) is Willan’s masterwork for organ, and it is certainly the most played of his works. It was clearly inspired by the large and opulent Casavant instrument installed in 1914 in St Paul’s Church, Bloor Street, Toronto, during Willan’s time there as organist. Particular features of this instrument were a large battery of solo Tubas enclosed in an expression chamber, an organ harp (tuned wooden bars) and a real celesta from Muestel of Paris. The piece resulted from a challenge from a musical friend that none but a “German philosophical mind” could write a truly fine passacaglia. Willan later sent his friend his own theme with the inscription “To the cause, from the effect.” Willan also delighted in recounting how he would write one variation on each journey as he commuted from Toronto to the home on Lake Simcoe where his family was spending the summer. The Introduction begins with a series of mystical unrelated chords on rich, undulating strings (“The Doc. always used the tremulant”, one habitué of Willan’s recitals insists.) These chords return at the end of the rhapsodic and declamatory writing, emphasizing the warmth and breadth of the organ’s colours. The Passacaglia is based on a traditional eight-bar theme presented quietly in the pedals. Eighteen variations follow, including everything from scherzo to song-without-words to the powerful funeral march which closes the set. A whispered chorale follows, leading to the Fugue, the subject of which is based on the first half of the passacaglia theme. A countersubject is introduced in semiquavers, and leads to further contrapuntal complexity. A dominant pedal-point in 3/4 time leads to a mighty coda featuring a recapitulation of the passacaglia theme on full organ.

The Fugal Trilogy (1958), while perhaps not inspired, is certainly not mundane, and proves again Willan’s ability to construct a convincing fugue at the drop of a hat. The Aria, second of the set, presents an elegant tenor melody, reminiscent of many romantic tunes for cello.

The Five Preludes on Plainchant Melodies (1950) form Willan’s most consistent set of chorale preludes, composed for Oxford University Press as an answer to the successful Concordia Press publications. There is no disguising Willan’s true love of plainsong melodies which so nourished his work at St Mary’s (Willan was founding director of the Gregorian Association of Toronto from 1950 to 1964). Indeed there is something almost ironic about the dedication of the pieces to Charles Peaker, eminent Canadian performer and Willan’s successor at St Paul’s, Toronto, a parish whose low-church tendencies would probably have precluded the singing of any of these melodies.

Aeterna Christi munera is a festive movement full of energy in which contrapuntal passages precede the statement of each plainsong phrase in massive chords. Willan was renowned for improvised postludes after High Mass on liturgical feast days, and this music gives us an excellent reminder of his fecund imagination on these occasions.

In Christe, Redemptor omnium the plainsong appears in the tenor part of this gentle meditation. The composer asks that it reflect the natural rhythmic freedom of the original.

With Ecce jam noctis interludes of a mystic stillness alternate with the harmonized melody played on a singing flute stop. The coda is one of Willan’s finest excursions into the chromatic world of Wagnerian modulation.

The prelude Ave maris stella perfectly captures the timeless stillness of liturgical worship, high-church style. Undulating quavers float above the tenor plainsong.

Subtitled Processional, Urbs Jerusalem beata evokes the grand liturgical processions at St Mary Magdalene, when Willan would extend the festival hymns with lavish improvisations. Here rolling chromatic harmonies support the melody, given out in long notes on the powerful Tuba stop.

Willan’s Passacaglia and Fugue No. 2 (1959), the sequel to the great Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue, is a remarkable work for a composer almost eighty years of age. It was CF Peters Edition of New York which encouraged Willan to produce it, concerned that he was spending all his creative energies on the series of short liturgical preludes which had become his bread and butter. The work is dedicated to Sir William McKie, then organist of Westminster Abbey. Willan had met McKie in 1951 and they had become fast friends: Willan had written the processional march for McKie’s wedding in 1956, and it was through Sir Willam that Willan was invited to write a motet for the 1952 Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. McKie came from England to attend Willan’s funeral in Toronto. There are many similarities to the earlier passacaglia, but here the introduction is but a few measures long, albeit containing one of the famous series of unrelated “mystic” chords, a progression that later appears on full organ to round out the coda. The passacaglia contains twelve variations which form a steady rhythmic and dynamic crescendo, the theme remaining throughout in the pedals. As with the earlier work, there then follows an echo chorale as bridge to the fugue, and here, too, the fugue is a double one. The first subject is based directly on the passacaglia theme and given a regular exposition with one episode. The second subject, in semiquavers, carries its own countersubject, and it is not long before Willan is displaying his famed virtuosity in triple counterpoint. There is a breathtaking combination of all the themes, a canonic statement of the first subject and a massive peroration.

The Prelude on “Aberytswyth” (1956) is part of a set of thirty preludes written in the composer’s mid-seventies and published by Peters of New York. They show remarkable creativity, and contain some of Willan’s finest writing in the genre. The treatment of this lovely Welsh hymn tune is concentrated and meditative, the tune passing among the voices phrase by phrase.

Epilogue (1908), an exuberant postlude, is a rather unjustly neglected early composition, full of youthful high spirits and worthy of much more frequent hearings. It reflects the style of the British concert march, of which Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance essays are the prototype, in that it has a main theme, a trio melody, a recapitulation and finally the trio presented in a grand final statement. There is much use of contrasting colour and texture, and some fine canonic writing combining the two main themes. At the recapitulation there are not one but two of Willan’s favourite pedal-points, and the fanfare-like coda is most convincing.

Patrick Wedd

The Organs of St Paul’s Bloor Street, Toronto, and Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Montréal The Casavant Organ of Eglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Montréal 1914, 1995

It was very soon after Willan’s arrival as church organist at St Paul’s, Bloor Street, in Toronto, that Casavant Frères of Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec installed a formidable instrument of four manuals and pedals with some 106 stops (the instrument of Westminster Abbey, London, had a mere 77 at the time). It was an amalgam of the grand romantic styles of England and France, and contained pedal stops of great gravity and a battery of solo Tubas unparalleled in the country. One year later Casavant supplied a similarly opulent instrument to the Eglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Montréal. The organ consisted of 61 stops in the gallery at the west end of the large building (both churches seat between 2,500 and 3,000) and a fifteen-stop chancel organ. It too is in the symphonic style and stands behind a façade of impressive grandeur.

Both instruments have survived unscathed by the unfortunate mid-twentieth-century penchant for “baroquising” many romantic organs; indeed the Montréal instrument stood unaltered for eighty years until the Casavant firm restored it in 1995. It is for these reasons that this organ has been chosen for this recording, and we believe that it provides the music a depth and subtlety of colour of which Willan himself would have approved.

This recording was made possible through the assistance of the Canada Music Fund and the Music Section of the Canada Council for the Arts

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