Thursday 1 February 2024

Organ Masterworks III: Healey Willan’s Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue.

I recently wrote about Sarah Dawe’s 1977 recital at the Wellington Church, Glasgow with her splendid performance of Roger-Ducasse’s Pastorale. At a previous recital in that series, I heard for the first time Healey Willan’s impressive Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue, (I.P.F.) B.149 for organ. This is his best-known composition and has been described as “one of the great organ works of our time.” It was performed at Simon Wright’s (then organist at Ampleforth Abbey) recital on 26 October 1977. Other pieces heard that evening included William Harris’s Flourish for an Occasion, Joseph Bonnet’s Elfes and Maurice Duruflé’s Toccata from the Suite, op.5. I was unable to find a review of the concert in the Glasgow Herald.

Healey Willan was born on 12 October 1880 in Balham, South London. However, he is usually claimed as an Anglo-Canadian organist and composer. After choir school in Eastbourne and organ posts at Wanstead and Holland Park, he emigrated to Canada during 1913, where he spent the remainder of his life. During this time, he taught in Toronto at the University and the Conservatory.

Willan’s catalogue is vast, with several hundred entries. There are operas, symphonies, a piano concerto, chamber music and piano pieces. His current reputation rests on his liturgical and organ works. One online commentator stated that his “music represents a unique and beautiful combination of styles: both an homage to the sacred music of five centuries ago and a reflection of the innovations of the Romantic/post-Romantic period in which he lived.” Healey Willan died in Toronto on 16 February 1968.

Three weeks after Willan had arrived in Canada, he was offered the post of organist at St Paul’s, Bloor Street, in Toronto. At first, he played services on a Steinway piano in the church hall. On 29 April 1914, the new Casavant organ in the church was inaugurated. At the time it was the largest instrument in the country. It was to stimulate him to write many fine organ pieces.

Don Michael Bedford, in his thesis (University of North Texas, 1998) examining the I.P.F. explains that Willan used to tell two tales about the work. Firstly, after attending an organ recital in which Max Reger’s Passacaglia in D minor was given, his friend Dalton Baker jokingly said that “only a German philosophical mind could compose such a work.”  Willan replied, "To hell with your German philosophical mind - it's a reasonable piece of thinking - that's all." On the way home that night he figured out the theme. He further contended that he wrote the variations for the passacaglia while riding on the inter urban tram between Toronto and the summer cottage he had rented near Jackson’s Point on Lake Simcoe. This was done at the pace of two variations per return trip. As an aside, the tramway closed in 1930.

The I.P.F. was dedicated to the British organist Walter G. Alcock. It was premiered by the Willan at St Paul’s Church, on 30 November 1916.

The overall structure of the work is straightforward – the Introduction which begins quietly, is a rhapsodic and improvisational fantasy. Massive chords and arpeggiated figurations are followed by the passacaglia theme stated on the pedals, with the eighteen variations building to a huge climax for solo tuba in the sixteenth and seventeenth. The final variation acts as a short, quiet chorale-like bridge passage before the concluding fugue and a ‘forte’ statement of the theme. The entire composition is characterised by a balance between contrapuntal development and dense chordal structures. Although ostensibly written in E flat minor (six flats) it rarely stays in key for long. Chromaticism and wayward modulations compliment some largely diatonic passages.

It is easy to play spot the influence in the piece. Willan himself said he was informed by Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582, Josef Rheinberger’s Organ Sonatas and Reger’s Introduction and Passacaglia in D Minor and his Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue in E minor, op. 127. Other models are Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale "Ad nos, ad salutarem undam", S.259, and his Prelude and Fugue on Bach, S.260. And there are some nods to British music as well, including Edward Elgar. Certainly, it concludes with one of that composer’s best-known musical directions – Nobilmente. Other Elgarian “organ loft” fingerprints are the massive chords used in the Introduction.

Within a few years, the Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue was recognized throughout Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom as a masterpiece for the organ. In fact, the organist and composer Joseph Bonnet stated that Willan's Passacaglia was "one of the most significant since Bach...a rare and admirable composition... this work does the greatest honour to the organ literature of our time." Francis Jackson said in a letter to Willan: “By Jove it wears well - it never fails to thrill me - and the hearers.”

With thanks to the Glasgow Diapason where this essay was first printed. 


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