Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena – Healey Willan (1880-1968)
If a Canadian ever joined a choir, whether in school, at church, or in the broader community, at some point he or she likely sang something by Healey Willan, an English immigrant who landed in Toronto in 1913. He composed some 800 works, most being sacred music for choir and organ, such as anthems, hymns, and mass settings.
Willan composed O Lord Our Governor, an anthem for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. His friends pitched in for airfare so he could attend the event and the work is still performed today at important events. From 1921 until his death in 1968 Willan was the organist & choirmaster at St. Mary Magdalene, an anglo-catholic parish in Toronto. In 1956 he received the Lambeth Doctorate from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and became one of the first members of the Order of Canada in 1967.
Willan came across as rather prim and proper, but he wasn’t without a sense of humour. He summed himself up by saying he was “English by birth; Canadian by adoption; Irish by extraction; Scotch by absorption.”
Written in 1928 and named for the parish Willan served for most of his life, this Sunday’s setting of the ordinary of the mass in church, features a vocal line influenced by plainchant, and the modalism in the organ accompaniment is derived from the same source. It has become one of the most widely used congregational settings and has been reprinted in several hymn books. It is reasonably easy to sing without being trite: a difficult thing to accomplish.