Friday, July 1, 2011

Healey Willan: Can a Revival Take Place?

Yesterday's posting of the Willan introit inspired a number of emails about Willan's life and work. He was born October 12, 1880 in Balham, London, immigrated to Canada in 1913, and died February 16, 1968. He composed more than 800 works including operas, symphonies, chamber music, a concerto, and pieces for band, orchestra, organ, and piano. His music for liturgy is his most lasting contribution - mostly composed for the high Anglican context. He was certainly the great master at setting English text to liturgical music, so his work should by wholly embraced by Catholics today.

(Again, hardly a day goes by when I do not stammer with shock at the realization that the Catholic Church vernacularized in 1963-65, and, after nearly half a century is only just now finding its liturgical voice in English. Part of the reason for this terrible situation has been an entrenched bias against anything that would seem to borrow from the experience, texts, and sounds of the Anglican faith. Because of that cultural bias, Catholics have been trying to reinvent the wheel and do their best to make it completely different from all all wheels in the world. It is an understatement to say that this approach hasn't worked. Fortunately, this bias seems to be less relevant today.)

Willan offers a huge library of music that would be easily adapted to Catholic use right now. His Graduals and Introits that I linked are only a tiny portion. He wrote many Masses, motets, and propers for the liturgy.

Consider these two Missa Brevis.You will instantly see what I mean.

There is a problem, however. Willan falls into the generation of composers that is recently seen by scholars as nearly lost to intellectual property legislation of the 20th century (one of the great legal errors of human history, as regards music). His publications might be trapped by the legal ambiguity of copyright in those years. This has happened to many composers in the 20th century, and rather than investigate the details, pay the estates, do the contracts, and bear the legal liabilities, it is just to easy to move to other things. No one wants to see their work go away but in the cost-benefit calculus, it is too easy just to let it all languish and disappear, which is precisely what has happened to legions of 20th century composers. 

Fortunately, we now have online access to copyright renewal databases that provided an accurate listing of all works renewed and hence still under protection. Even better is that those databases reveal that nothing of Willan's work was ever renewed, which means that if it was published in the U.S. in 1963 or before, it is now in the public domain. This is the case for the introits I linked yesterday. It might be the case for these Masses too. This is certainly something that people should look into, because there is real treasure here, and it awaits being made a living presence in Catholic liturgy today.
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