Sacred Music for a Sacred Space 2011 Program Notes

Good Friday, April 22, 2011, St. Paul’s Basilica

Throughout his life, Healey Willan claimed he was born with the ability to read music. As a choir boy in England, he studied singing, piano, organ, harmony and counterpoint and by the age of eleven was conducting choir practices. Willan continued on the path of a church musician in London, delighted by his natural gift for music. As a teenager, he amused himself by coming up with melodies that incorporated all intervals, and then wrote counterpoint in two, three, four and five parts above or below them. In 1913, Willan emigrated to Toronto, where he continued to work as a church musician and teacher. He composed over eight hundred works, with over half of them intended for use in church services. But there are also two symphonies, a piano concerto, chamber music, songs and an opera. Underneath Willan’s presumed pious church musician exterior was a warm and often witty man, reflected in his oft-quoted line, “I am English by birth, Irish by extraction, Canadian by adoption and Scotch by absorption.”

In 1921 Willan became Precentor of Music at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto, a post he kept for over forty-five years until his death in 1968. He set out to compose suitable Anglo-Catholic service music for the church, that included fourteen settings of the Missa Brevis. Willan claimed that they were all written “with stop-watch in hand.” The Missa Brevis No. 11 (Missa Sancti Johannis Baptistae) is one of the most complex of the fourteen masses, but probably the most popular.
The motet Behold the Tabernacle of God was composed in 1933 to commemorate the centennial of the Church of St. James in Chicago. It’s dedicated to the organist of the church at the time, Leo Sowerby, whose compositional style was similar to Willan’s.

O King All Glorious contains a couple of Willan choral traits – the clever mix of counterpoint with chordal harmony and a gentle, spiritual ending.
The motets to the honour of our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, more commonly known as the Marian motets, are three of Willan’s best-loved works, sung by Canadian choirs from coast-to-coast. I Beheld Her and Fair in Face are based on responsories, while Rise Up, My Love, from the Song of Solomon is suitable for Easter. All three illustrate Willan’s lifelong love of plainchant.

The motet, “Gloria Deo per immensa saecula” was apparently Willan’s musical response to a complaint from his friend and colleague Drummond Wolff, who moaned that no one composed choral music in five parts anymore. The result is a showpiece of Willan’s contrapuntal style.
The Englishman John Tavener is one of today’s most popular composers. Tavener’s character and music grew more spiritual and contemplative, eventually leading him to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977. Funeral Ikos contains words from the service for the burial of priests. The music is repeated six times, each in a different combination of voices and each section containing an Alleluia.

Song for Athene became part of popular culture after it was heard at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. The work was written in 1993 as a tribute to a young family friend of Tavener’s who died in a cycling accident. Athene’s love of acting and the music of the Orthodox Church led Tavener to combine words from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Orthodox funeral service.

U.S. composer Eric Whitacre studied composition at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas before completing a Master’s degree at the Juilliard School in New York. His musical style is immediately recognizable and highly effective, largely built on series of suspensions – a note from one chord is held over into the next chord, creating a dissonance. Water Night is one of his earliest works to a poem by the Mexican writer and Nobel Prize winner, Octavio Paz. According to Whitacre, the piece “seemed to sing itself out into the air,” and was composed in forty-five minutes.

Sleep was originally composed to the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, that closes with, “But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.” But the Frost estate refused to grant the rights, so Whitacre approached a poet friend, who came up with a text that fit the Frost poem syllable-to-syllable.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was one of the most prolific of choral composers with over one hundred masses and some three hundred motets. His Stabat Mater for double choir was written for Pope Gregory XIV and quickly became a revered piece, usually performed in the Sistine Chapel during the offertory on Palm Sunday. The medieval text deals with Mary’s despair at the foot of the cross, ending with a prayer for intercession. This Stabat Mater was a favourite to both Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner.

An Apostrophe to The Heavenly Hosts by Healey Willan was composed on commission for the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in 1921, scored for eight-part double choir and two small, distant ‘mystic’ choirs, with the final section based on the great hymn tune “Lasst uns Erfreuen.” In 1952, it was performed at the then-new Royal Festival Hall in London, in the presence of the yet-to-be-crowned Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. With a text based on Eastern Orthodox liturgies, An Apostrophe to The Heavenly Hosts is often considered the choral masterpiece of Willan.


You are welcome to use excerpts from these notes for your concert program or for educational purposes. If you do, please credit both Rick Phillips and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Also please advise TMC by email: marketing@tmchoir.org. Thank you.

Categories: 2010-2011 Season and Program Notes.