James Healey Willan, born at Balham, Surrey, October 12, 1880, the son of James Henry Burton and Eleanor (Healey) Willan. His forebears were doctors, schoolmasters or members of the clergy.
Begins music education at the age of 4, and soon shows signs of promise at the piano.
May 1, at age 8 ½, enters St. Saviour’s Choir School at St. Saviour’s Church, Eastbourne as a boarder. Under Dr. Walter Hay Sangster, studies organ, piano and harmony. In record time becomes a full choir boy at the school and in the following years assistant school librarian, school librarian, and then assistant librarian at St. Saviour’s Church itself. Finally, achieves the coveted position of “doctor’s boy” involving a variety of duties for Dr. Sangster.
At age 11, plays the organ and directs the choir for services at St. Saviour’s Choir School.
Leaves St. Saviour’s Choir School, having received many prizes for piano, theory, and other subjects.
Becomes an Associate of the Royal College of Organists (A.R.C.O.).
[1896?] Appointed organist and, in 1899, choirmaster at St. Saviour’s Church, St. Albans, Hertfordshire, 1898-1900. Becomes organist of the St. Cecilia Society, 1898-1900.
July 14, 1899 becomes a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists (F.R.C.O.).About this period, takes advanced organ lessons from William Stevenson Hoyte in London and advanced piano lessons from Evlyn Howard-Jones. A close association is developed with Francis Burgess, which accounts for much of Willan’s enthusiasm for plainchant.
Becomes organist and choirmaster at Christ Church, Wanstead, 1900-1903.
Appointed organist and choirmaster at St. John the Baptist Church, Kensington, London, 1903-1913.
November 19, elected an Associate of the Philharmonic Society of London (later the Royal Philharmonic Society). Conducts Wanstead Choral Society [fl. 1904-1906].
Marries Gladys Ellen, daughter of Edward V. Hall of London. (Later they have three sons and one daughter: Michael, Bernard, Patrick, and Mary.)
Conducts the Thalian Operatic Society [fl. 1906] in Gilbert and Sullivan and other productions.
Becomes a member of the London Gregorian Association. During his years at St. John the Baptist, achieves a reputation as an authority on plainchant in the vernacular.
Moves to Canada to become head of the theory department of the Toronto Conservatory of Music and remains associated with the Conservatory 1913-1936. Becomes organist and choirmaster of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Bloor St., 1913-1921.
Appointed lecturer and examiner for the University of Toronto.
July 31, completes the Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue and gives its first performance on November 30, St. Paul’s Church, Toronto.
Appointed Musical Director of Hart House Theatre (University of Toronto), 1919-1925. Writes incidental music for the performance of many plays including The Chester Mysteries, premiered December 2 at Hart House.
Made Vice-Principal of the Toronto Conservatory of Music, 1920-1936. Granted an honorary Mus. Doc. from the University of Toronto.
Becomes Precentor (organist and music director) of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto. An Apostrophe to the Heavenly Hosts, written for the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, is published in the United States.
Becomes President of both the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, and the Canadian College of Organists, 1922-1923.
An all-Willan concert is given in Montreal on February 10, with the participation of the Elgar Choir of Montreal.
Begins to arrange folk melodies for ballad operas. The first is presented at the Canadian Folk Song and Handicraft Festival in Quebec City, under the auspices of the CPR, National Museum, National Gallery, and Public Archives of Canada.
Writes a set of fauxbourdons for the London Gregorian Association Service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, on July 17.
Appointed University Organist for the University of Toronto, 1932-1964.
Founds and conducts the Tudor Singers, 1933-1939. Examines for the University of Bishop’s College, Lennoxville, Quebec, 1933-1935.
Again elected President of the Canadian College of Organists, 1933-1935.
The position of Vice-Principal of the Toronto Conservatory of Music is abolished. October 8, Symphony No. 1 is premiered by the Promenade Symphony Orchestra of Toronto under Reginald Stewart. Offered position as professor at the University of Michigan. After much consideration, decides to remain in Canada. Appointed chairman, Board of Examiners in music, Bishop’s College.
Appointed Professor of Music, University of Toronto, 1937-1950. June 3, premiere of Te Deum (Coronation) by the Bach Choir and the Promenade Symphony Orchestra, Reginald Stewart conducting. July 1, premiere of Coronation March by the Promenade Symphony Orchestra, Reginald Stewart conducting. Lectures as guest professor of composition in School of Music, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (summer session, also summer 1938).
The Tudor Singers are disbanded because of wartime conditions. From 1939 until 1960, the choir of St. Mary Magdalene appears in concerts under the name the St. Mary Magdalene Singers.
Gives summer course at University of British Columbia.
March 8, premiere of Willan’s CBC, and performed under the baton of Sir Ernest MacMillan.
Appointed Chairman of the British Organ Restoration Fund, a project of the Canadian College of Organists, undertaken to replace the organ at Coventry Cathedral. September 26, premiere of Brébeuf, commissioned by the CBC and conducted by Ettore Mazzoleni.
August 24, premiere of the Piano Concerto in C minor with Agnes Butcher and the CBC orchestra under Jean-Marie Beaudet.
Gives two very successful recitals with his choir at Town Hall, New York. The first commercial recording devoted to a Willan work is made of the Piano Concerto.
April 20, premiere of Deirdre (originally known as Deirdre of the Sorrows), an opera commissioned by the CBC and conducted by Ettore Mazzoleni.
May, premiere of the Royce Hall Suite by the U.C.L.A. band under Patton McNaughton. Lectures in choir and church music during the summer session of University of California at Los Angeles.
Is a co-founder of the Gregorian Association of Toronto, and becomes its director of music. This organization is formed to promote the use of plainchant in the city, and is affiliated with the Gregorian Association of London. May 18, the Symphony No. 2 is premiered at Massey Hall by the Royal Conservatory of Toronto Orchestra under Ettore Mazzoleni.
August 15, receives National Award in Music, University of Alberta, Banff School of Fine Arts.
Receives an honorary LL.D. from Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. An Apostrophe to the Heavenly Hosts is performed by Royal Command at the annual St. Cecilia’s Day Concert, London, on November 24. The composer is presented to the future Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. During the same visit he presents the Canadian contribution to the restoration of the Coventry Cathedral organ.
June 2, the homage anthem, O Lord Our Governour, commissioned for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, is performed at Westminster Abbey with the composer present. On the same day, the Coronation Suite is premiered by the CBC Chorus and Orchestra under Geoffrey Waddington on a special radio network program. Appointed musical director of the Toronto Diocesan Choir School, the first Anglican choir school for the Toronto Diocese (Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ontario).
May 19, receives an honorary D. Litt. from the University of Manitoba.
Made an honorary member of the Canadian League of Composers. Receives Order of Merit from City of Toronto.
July 9, the Lambeth Doctorate, Mus. D. Cantuar. conferred by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
September 30, elected a Fellow of the Ancient Monuments Society of England.
September 2, premiere of the Passacaglia and Fugue No. 2 given by Charles Peaker in the University of Toronto Convocation Hall during the 50th anniversary convention of the Royal Canadian College of Organists. The film Man of Music is made by the National Film Board with Willan as subject.
The Royal Canadian College of Organists establishes a scholarship fund in Willan’s honour. Special 80th birthday celebrations are arranged by the Oxford University Press. Becomes first Warden of St. George’s College, Toronto.
February 19, receives the Canada Council Medal.
May 21, an honorary D. Litt. conferred by McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.
Retires as director of music for the Gregorian Association of Canada. May 20, becomes a Fellow of the Royal School of Church Music in England (F.R.S.C.M.).
October, retires as University Organist. December 8, Mrs. Willan (b. March 19, 1883) dies suddenly. Retires as Music Director of Gregorian Association of Toronto.
Is made a Fellow of the Royal Hamilton College of Music. April 2, the stage premiere of Deirdre is given at the University of Toronto with Ettore Mazzoleni conducting.
December 22, a CBC TV portrait of Healey Willan is featured on the Telescope program series.
November 24, is made a Companion of the Order of Canada. September 22, receives a diploma of recognition for his role in Canadian musical life from the Premier of Ontario. Begins work on a Christmas presentation for the CBC, “The Play of Our Lady”. December 24, directs his last service, Midnight Mass, at St. Mary Magdalene’s. The last composition to be prepared for publication by the composer, Slane – Prelude: At the Close of the Day, is published by C. F. Peters.
February 16, died in Toronto.
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