Most music lovers will be familiar with the works of Healey Willan: one can hardly go to the opera house without encountering yet another revival of his opera Deirdre, and his C-minor piano concerto is a staple of public radio. It is not as well known, however, that Willan also wrote organ music and choral works for the Anglican liturgy. Indeed, Willan’s life story can be read as a cautionary tale of the dangers faced by musicians tempted by Ritualism. Tempted by the alluring odour of incense and the tintinnabular delights of Sanctus bells, Willan abandoned the symphony and concerto and began composing in such Ritualist genres as “motets,” “responsories” and “vimpas.” Yet the riches and fame promised to the young composer never materialized, and Willan’s musical talents proved totally unsuited to the composition of Ritualist liturgical music; despite the efforts of Willan’s modern-day admirers, it seems unlikely that such efforts as “Rise up, my love" will ever be popular.
Brought up in a staunchly low-church family in south London, Willan engaged enthusiastically with the ecclesiastical struggles of the time: his 1910 master’s thesis on “The Plainchant Revival As a Special Case of the Decline of Western Civilization” is still much read. Three years later, Willan emigrated to Toronto, Canada, attracted by the opportunity to serve at the large parish of St Paul’s, Bloor Street, a noted haven of loyal churchmanship. Yet it was in Toronto that Willan’s journey to Ritualism began; isolated from his British colleagues, the young composer soon became an habitué of Yonge Street’s Ritualist dive bars, where gin-sodden acolytes plied him with second-class relics in a haze of incense smoke. Within a few short years Willan had given up his job at St Paul’s and moved to the nearby church of St Mary Magdalene, where the parish’s “advanced” Ritualist liturgical practices provided some small consolation for its much lower salary and distinctly subpar acoustics.
Although Willan never achieved any particular distinction among Canadian composers, he had some success as a teacher, with pupils including John Weinzweig, Pierre Boulez, John Ruskin, and Benedictus Appenzeller.