[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel. Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect. However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]
Born 12 October 1880 (Balham, England) – Died 16 February 1968 (Toronto, Canada)
Musician: Composer; Organist, Choirmaster, Precentor (St. John the Baptist, Holland Road, London; St. Paul’s, Toronto; St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto); Teacher (Toronto Conservatory; University of Toronto).
For most Anglicans and former Anglicans in North America, Healey Willan is best known as the composer of his Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena (1928). Since congregations can sing this setting from memory, it could be called the Missa de Angelis of the Anglican patrimony.
But Willan’s other church music and his secular music deserve to be better known as well. He was fluid in his musical idioms, able to express luxuriant, “purple” romanticism as well as the restraint of plainsong and Renaissance music. This shifting of musical styles might have cost him in developing the uniqueness of his own compositional voice. (The fact that one of Willan’s fellow church composers, Thomas Tallis, did something comparable would provide an interesting comparison between the two composers.) But as is often the case with composers who devote themselves to teaching and performing, Willan’s time, energy, and focus could not always put composing first. Also, his variety of idioms is a kind of pedagogy in itself—a way of saying to his students that mastery of the craft comes from imitating masters whose works have stood the test of time. And Willan accomplished much for the cause of writing new liturgical music on the firm foundations the Anglican musical heritage has given us.
Willan is supposed to have acquired a “dour and pious public image” as time went on. But one of the ways he countered this was by stating the following about himself: “English by birth; Canadian by adoption; Irish by extraction; Scotch by absorption.”
Brother John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.