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Concert pays tribute to music great Healey Willan

By Stuart Mann

Canon Giles Bryant remembers his first year as the choirmaster at St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto. It was 1968 and he was succeeding the great Healey Willan, a giant of the Canadian music scene who had died that year after leading the church’s vaunted music program for nearly half a century.

“They were huge shoes to fill and it was a strange experience,” he recalls fondly. “For a year it felt like I was merely somebody who was waving his arms in front of the choir while they were actually looking at a shadow behind me.”

Healey Willan. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Canon Bryant tells the story with humour and a deep appreciation for his predecessor and the choir he inherited. “On the other hand, they were a hugely loyal group – to Willan and St. Mary Magdalene and the Anglican Church in general. They were very committed. Very nicely they stuck around for me.”

Canon Bryant, who is retired after a long and distinguished music career of his own, will be one of many former friends, choristers and students of Dr. Willan returning to St. Mary Magdalene on Friday, Feb. 16 at 8 p.m. to commemorate the 50th anniversary – to the very day – of the composer’s death.

Everyone is invited to the concert, which will include performances by the choirs of St. Mary Magdalene and St. Thomas, Huron Street. Dr. Willan’s only surviving child, Mary Willan Mason, who is in her 90s, plans to attend. Former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, a parishioner of St. Mary Magdalene, will attend and give remarks.

With more than 800 compositions to his credit, Dr. Willan was called the dean of Canadian composers. In addition to church music, he wrote operas, symphonies, chamber music, a concerto, and pieces for band, orchestra, organ, and piano. He was asked to compose an anthem for the Queen’s coronation in 1953, leading to the Queen Mother visiting St. Mary Magdalene in 1989.

He is best known for his church music, which is still performed by choirs in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. In 1956, he became the first non-English church musician to receive an honorary Doctor of Music degree from the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1967 and was one of the first Canadian musicians to appear on a Canadian postage stamp.

Originally from the U.K., Dr. Willan was the organist and choirmaster at St. Paul, Bloor Street before moving to St. Mary Magdalene in 1921, where he remained for the rest of his career. As a professor at the Royal Conservatory of Music, he influenced generations of Canadian musicians, singers and composers. His work at St. Mary Magdalene made it a North American mecca for choral and Anglican church musicians, especially those of the Anglo-Catholic variety.

“I think in Canada he helped to establish a sort of standard at St. Mary Magdalene,” says Andrew Adair, the church’s current organist and director of music. “The place became known as a standard of quality, liturgy and music, and that became a beacon for other churches in Canada to try to match.”

He says Dr. Willan’s reputation still makes St. Mary Magdalene a top destination for choral singers in the city. “We’re the only large choral program in downtown Toronto that maintains an all-volunteer rota of choristers,” he says. “That remains from Willan’s time, and I’m sure it’s his mark on the place that has helped us to keep drawing volunteer choristers who give a lot of their time and are quite skilled. Most of the singers I have could be paid elsewhere.”

Many people in the diocese can trace their musical roots back to Dr. Willan – including the current incumbent of St. Mary Magdalene, the Rev. Canon David Harrison. As a boy chorister at St. James Cathedral, Canon Harrison sang for Canon Bryant, who was not only a friend of the composer but catalogued his works.

“I grew up singing Willan and I’m a musician myself, so it’s always been a really special connection for me here,” says Canon Harrison. “I regret that I never met him, but I’m always fascinated to talk to people who worked with him or met him.”

 He says Dr. Willan’s presence continues to grace St. Mary Magdalene. His music is performed regularly, and a small park beside the church is named after him. The parish honoured him during its 125th anniversary celebrations in 2013 by donating musical playground equipment for it. There is also a plaque of the composer in front of the church.

“As a musician and priest, it’s wonderful to have someone with that historical significance,” says Canon Harrison. “It’s part of the fabric of the place in a way that’s still alive and part of our liturgical life.”

Canon Harrison is hoping the concert will help the neighbourhood community learn more about the famous musician. “We want to take the opportunity to invite people to know a little bit more about Willan – to say this is the person whose park you play in and walk by and cycle by, so come and learn more about him.”

In addition to the Friday night concert, the church is planning to hold a reunion on Sunday, Feb. 18 for choristers who sang for Dr. Willan or his successors. Canon Bryant, for one, is looking forward to it. “I love getting back in to that building,” he says. “I conducted some former choristers there a few years ago and it was simply a wonderful experience. Many of us are still pals from 50 years ago and I’m looking forward to seeing them again.”

St. Mary Magdalene is located at 477 Manning Ave., Toronto. Admission to the concert is on a pay-what-you-can basis. For more information about the concert and reunion, visit