A Tribute to F. R. C. Clarke

A Tribute to F. R. C. Clarke

By Sarah Pugh

The world premiere of Healey Willan’s Requiem, completed by F.R.C. Clarke, took place in Queen’s University’s Grant Hall on March 27, 1988, performed by the Kingston Choral Society, Kingston Symphony, and Maestro Brian Jackson (then KSA Music Director). Twenty-three years later to the day, the same forces are coming together to perform the work again, this time in the Kingston Gospel Temple, and with the addition of singers from the Melos Choir. Soloists Jennie Such, soprano, Janice Coles, mezzo-soprano, Tim Stiff, tenor, and Bruce Kelly, baritone will join them.

The revival performance is a tribute to the late Dr. Clarke, a great friend of the Kingston Symphony and a former musical director of the Kingston Choral Society. Clarke, who was a distinguished composer in his own right, considered the Willan Requiem completion to be his finest achievement.

The story of the discovery and completion of the Requiem goes back to 1980, the centenary of Willan’s birth, when Willan’s former student Fred Clarke was preparing the first full-length book on the life and work of the composer. The project took Clarke to the National Library of Canada, where the materials from Willan’s musical estate are housed. Looking through the papers, Clarke came upon the manuscript pages and sketches relating to the unfinished Requiem, an ambitious early composition conceived for four soloists, double choir and large orchestra. Four movements – the Introit, Kyrie Eleison, Dies Irae, and Sanctus – were complete except for orchestration, and there were brief sketches for a Prelude, an Offertory, and a Benedictus. Clarke found in these pages “much beautiful music & that deserved to be heard and known.”

Having undertaken to prepare a performing version of the work and to complete it as far as was possible, Clarke devoted his next sabbatical leave to the task. He fleshed out the Benedictus sketch, using the music that Willan had composed for the Hosanna section of the Sanctus for the missing Hosanna section of the Benedictus. For an Agnus Dei, Clarke looked to Willan’s other settings, and found the composer’s 1910 Communion Service setting to be a good stylistic fit, probably because of its chromatic musical language. He devised a concluding movement (Lux Aeterna) from the music of the Introit and Kyrie, thus rounding off the composition. Finally, Clarke orchestrated the entire work, relying on his knowledge of the orchestration of Willan’s symphonic works to supplement the few indications provided by Willan. The final performing version includes all the essential movements of the requiem mass except for the offertory, for which there was not enough sketch material, and for which Clarke could find no appropriate substitute setting from another work.

The dates on the material indicate that Willan worked on his Requiem from around 1912 to 1918. As with Fauré before him and Duruflé after him, the impetus for the composition may have been the death of a parent – Willan’s father died in early 1913. At the time he began the work, Willan was in his early thirties and living in London England. He was becoming recognized not only as a stellar church musician and organist, but also as a composer of some significance and future potential.

The general flavour of the Requiem is very different the music of Willan that most of us are likely to be more familiar with, i.e., the restrained, predominantly diatonic and conservative motets and later service settings made for his St. Mary Magdalene choirs in Toronto. By contrast, the music of the Requiem displays the confidence, exuberance and risk-taking of a young man with considerable imagination, a forceful individual voice, and a precocious musical technique.

The movement that most resembles Willan’s later St. Mary Magdalene style is the Introit, a mystical eight-part setting of the opening Requiem liturgy. But the design is more expansive and the language more lush, including French sonorities and Wagnerian chromaticism.

Wagner, Brahms and Tchaikovsky seem to have been prime influences on Willan’s concert music style of the time, followed by Franck, Fauré, Debussy, Strauss and Elgar. An omnipresent background figure – a sine qua non for every organist-composer – is J.S. Bach.

The Dies Irae of the Requiem contains some plainsong-like passages (Willan had always loved plainsong and was already known as an authority on plainsong with English texts). The imitative vocal entries in the Kyrie Eleison were perhaps inspired by the composer’s knowledge and appreciation of Renaissance polyphony and Tudor church music.

The imagery of the Dies Irae and the Sanctus movements allowed Willan to get visual in his musical response, and both of these movements bear out his later definition of the Mass as “sacred drama.” In the first part of the Dies Irae, for example, the music vividly portrays the inexorable procession of the risen dead towards the throne of the Judge. It does so by way of a unison dirge melody in slow triple metre with an underlying ominous rhythmic pattern. (Willan in fact borrowed this from already-composed incidental music for a London play.) In this movement we hear more Wagnerian touches such as a descending-scale “prophecy” motif that resembles Wotan’s spear motif from Das Rheingold. At the other extreme, the high-tessitura soprano entry on the words “Salve me” (save me) is Straussian in its lyricism, foreshadowing the Four Last Songs.

Like Bach’s B Minor Mass Sanctus, Willan’s setting for double choir conjures up the biblical vision (Isaiah VI) of the Lord sitting upon a throne surrounded by six-winged seraphims crying “Holy, Holy, Holy” across to one another. As with the Bach version, the descending bass line seems to represent the moving pillars and posts described in the vision (whereas Bach’s bass line is diatonic, Willan’s is a chromatic scale). The “Pleni sunt coeli” section (heaven and earth are full of Thy glory) is set as a fugue, culminating in a frenzied “Hosanna in excelsis” (Hosanna in the highest) that takes the sopranos up to a high C.

Why did Willan abandon this work, into which he seems to have put forth effort and the best of himself? We cannot know for sure but, most likely, the time and circumstances were never right for him to finish it.

In the summer of 1913, shortly after he is presumed to have started work on the Requiem, Willan’s life was disrupted by a move from London England to Toronto Canada, to take up better paying work. The move was from necessity rather than from choice. Willan simply could not make enough money in London to support his wife and three young children, as well as his widowed mother and sister.

Two of the Requiem movements are dated May 1914, less than a year after he arrived in Canada, and it may be that Willan worked on the composition at this time because he was anticipating only a temporary sojourn in Toronto. He was also working on other large-scale compositions more appropriate for the culturally advanced London environment than for early 20th-century Toronto where, as a friend described to him, “the errand boy had not yet learned to whistle.”

In the summer 1914 the First World War broke out, so any plans to return to London had to be put on hold. Willan’s wife and three sons joined him in Toronto in November 1914, having sailed on a troop ship. The last Requiem movement to be composed, the Kyrie, is dated 1918, and there is evidence that as late as 1920 Willan had not given up hope of returning to England. Perhaps he thought that a portfolio of large concert works, such as the Requiem, the 1915 Trio in B Minor for Piano, Violin and Cello, the 1916 Sonata no. 1 in E Minor for Violin and Piano, and of course the monumental 1916 Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue in E Flat Minor (generally considered his greatest organ work), would assist him to re-establish himself in his native land.

But in 1921 Willan secured a much more congenial church position at the Anglo-Catholic St. Mary Magdalene. From that point on he seems to have turned his face towards the West, remaining at St. Mary Magdalene for 47 years until shortly before his death in 1968. The London chapter of his life was closed, together with its unfinished associated musical projects, and Willan moved on energetically to embrace the new opportunities that opened up to him in his adopted country.

Known as the Dean of Canadian Composers, Healey Willan had an enormous influence on the development of music in Canada, and inspired respect and loyalty from his many students and choristers. His student F.R.C. Clarke has repaid him by rescuing from oblivion a major early composition.

Sarah Pugh is president of the Kingston Choral Society and a member of the KSA board of directors.