James Healey Willan was born on October 12, 1880, in Balham, Surrey, England. He had a wide experience as a composer of a full-length opera, a symphonic work, countless organ and choral works, as a music educator, a choral director, and a church musician. He played his first service at the age of eleven in 1891 and his last service on Christmas Eve, 1967, just two months before he died on February 16, 1968.
Having served churches in England, Willan left for Canada in 1913 to serve as organist and choirmaster at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Toronto as well as head of the Theory Department at the Toronto Conservatory of Music. In 1921, he accepted the position of organist-choirmaster at St. Mary Magdalene Church, an Anglo-Catholic parish in Toronto, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. During his tenure there, Willan also accepted in 1938 the position of Professor in the Music Faculty at the University of Toronto.
Most of his hymn-based motets and organ preludes came into existence after his retirement from the University of Toronto in 1950, the most prolific compositional period of his life. Willan is probably best known for his sacred and liturgical music, especially that written for St. Mary Magdalene Church. His anthems, hymns, motets, mass settings, and carol settings—many published by Concordia Publishing House—all contributed to his reputation as the “dean of Canadian composers.”