Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mary Willan Mason on the Musical Legacy of Her Father and the Canons Regular

Further to our recent article about the establishment of the Healey Willan Society by the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius and their new role in fostering the musical legacy of Healey Willan, I wished to pass along the following article, written by Mrs. Mary Willan Mason, the daughter of Healey Willan, about this exciting development, originally written in Notes from the Choir (Fall 2011)

The Ongoing Musical Legacy of Healey Willan

My father wrote music consistently and constantly. In my earliest memories, that is what he did and I took it for granted. Over many years I began to realize he was someone quite special in musical terms. In the last few years of his life we became very close friends and so often he raised the question of what should be done and what would become of his life’s work, the over eight hundred pieces of music, some in manuscript, some little more than preliminary ideas. In my blithe ignorance, I promised to take care of everything.

It has been a learning experience that I cherish: the publishers now my friends, the publishers who have to be reminded of their contractual obligations, publishers who let works go out of print, out of circulation and neglect to let me know, perusing the Berne Convention and the Ilsley report. Now after more than forty years I was beginning to ask myself the same question. Who would look after his legacy of enduring works? After all, violinists have their Paganini Variations still in print, and organists have the Willan Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue, but how about the motets used around the world, O Lord Our Governour, the only Homage Anthem commissioned for a coronation not written by a British resident, the music for Tenebrae and so many other significant masterpieces, the Requiem begun a century ago, left unfinished, and with modulations unheard of until Benjamin Britten wrote similar works many years later, or his opera Deirdre, which seemed a bit dissonant when it was performed in 1946 but now sounds right?

So it was a delight and an answer to prayers when two very modern angels flew down out of the sky, Father Scott Haynes of St. John Cantius and Joseph Phelps, a musician angel and a lawyer angel, and there couldn’t be too many of those. They spoke of stewardship, of data based technology for making the work I had been doing with pen and a little computer into a great compendium of knowledge, order, permanence and accessability, a tribute to the composer about whom I have read is a natural successor to William Byrd, 1543 – 1623.

Since a majority of his works were written for the service of the church, some people who never knew him, suppose he was a solemn, retiring individual. Such is not the case at all. He laughed uproariously and frequently chuckled. He loved a good story and told them well. He loved all creatures great and small. Particularly dogs. Once he admonished our fox terrier to leave the birds in the garden alone and she got his message although she quivered when sparrows came enough for his crumbs. He loved cryptic crossword puzzles and could make words rhyme in unusual ways. I must have asked him once to put some harp parts in something because he demurred saying that harp solos reminded him of angels picking their teeth. You never knew what to expect but it was usually hilarious. He once described some rather pedantic piece as like taking a reluctant puppy for a walk on a rubber leash. Even when conducting his choir in the most solemn music, there was an energy, a passion, a drive, that never allowed what he referred to as lugubriance. He despised the habit of dragging the tempo at the ending. There is always joy in his music, a statement of deep faith.

At a meeting of the American Choral Directors Association in Kansas City years after his death, a group of American directors and I chatting together were asked by Canadian Robert Cooper, if they could name three Canadian composers. Two were easy but then there was a silence. I asked if they had ever heard of Willan. They all said, “O course!” and then one added, “you don’t think of Willan as a Canadian any more than you think of Bach as a German.” I hope my father was listening in. He would have loved it.

So there it is, as he would say, Healey Willan’s legacy entrusted to St. John Cantius for all time under Father Scott Haynes direction. I hope and think my father’s question is finally answered and that he is content, all that I could possibly ask.

Mary Willan Mason
Daughter of Healey Willan

Here is a live recording, recorded in 1966 when he was 86 years of age, of an organ improvisation of Willan, played by him at the church of St. Mary Magdelene in Toronto, Canada, along with his composition of Ave Verum Corpus.

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