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Healy Willan

1880 - 1968
Healey Willan at
St Saviour’s Choir School

On 1 May 1889 a young boy, aged 8, might have been seen climbing the steps of the Choir School, in his own words, “feeling as though I were going to my execution”. His name was James Healey Willan and he was to play a major role in the development of music in Canada for more than 50 years. As a teacher and organist-choirmaster at St Mary Magdalene’s Toronto, he inspired generations of singers, musicians and composers. As a composer he created some 800 works, including operas and symphonies, as well as organ, piano, chamber, vocal and band music. Willan was born in Balham, London.

From a very early age his love of music, especially church music and liturgy, shone through. He was learning the piano at 5, and he later said, “I could read music before I could read words.” By the time he was 6, when the family was living in Beckenham, he would slip out of the back door of his house and go over to the church to hear the organist practising every day from noon to one o’clock. By 1889 the family had moved to Eastbourne.

On that day in May 1889 he was auditioned by Dr Sangster, who having established him as a second soprano, gave him that part of the final chorus of S S Wesley’s ‘The Wilderness’ to sight read! Willan passed easily and was admitted as a probationer. On Advent Sunday he was made a full chorister after 6 months instead of the usual 12-a school record. There were 30-40 boys in the school, receiving instruction in English, maths, history and classics as well as a daily choir rehearsal. Each day they would sing Evensong at 5 o’clock. Some of the boys, Willan among them, also studied harmony, counterpoint and organ with Sangster. Willan was regarded as an excellent scholar and his musical studies progressed rapidly; by 10 he had composed a March in A for piano, playing it in a school concert. At 11 he was proficient enough to play the organ at Evensong. Willan was then entrusted with some choir practices. Older boys resented being corrected by a younger boy and he was often set upon afterwards.

The Headmaster appointed Willan ‘choir monitor’ a personal representative of the Headmaster who must not be subject to any physical violence! He soon reached the top post, that of ‘Doctor’s boy.’ “I had to be at church well ahead of whenever Dr Sangster was to play, find his places, dust the keys and prepare everything for him so that all he had to do was sit down and doodle.” At Christmas 1893 Willan received the first English prize of a book of Thomas Hood’s poetry; his first five songs,1899, were to poems by Hood.

When he was 14 or 15 Willan’s voice broke but he was so useful to Sangster that he was kept on for another year. When he left Sangster said, “Well Willan, I’m sorry you’re going. I’ll miss you. You never had a great voice, but you never missed a lead”. Throughout his life Willan delighted in quoting this remark!

Willan firmly believed that he had received the finest training possible and that a choir school education was the best. Willan  admired  Sangster’s noble playing of Bach and received from him a solid grounding in service playing.

Willan speaks of his education at the Choir School, saying it was there he ‘learned his trade’ and developed his knowledge and appreciation of the C of E and its heritage. There is no doubt that it had a profound influence upon him and his work for the Church and church music for the rest of his life.

David Thorpe
St Saviour’s Church, Eastbourne


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