Daughter's memoir a glancing reference to Healey Willan and endearing peek into pre-WWII Toronto
Mary Willan Mason, the youngest child of Toronto composer, teacher and church musician Healey Willan (1880-1968), celebrated her 90th birthday earlier this year with the publication of a memoir of her early years. The short paperback is titled The Well-Tempered Listener: Growing-Up With Musical Parents.
(The book is not listed at Chapter's-Indigo or on Amazon. It's the first book by a company called Words Indeed, which has no website, but an email address: firstname.lastname@example.org)
The memoir is an easy, engaging read. Mason, a writer who spent a long time as an arts critic at the Hamilton Spectator, breezes us through the first four decades of her life -- from her birth in 1920 to the death of her mother in 1964 and her father, four years later.
Mason writes in anecdotes, rendered in short, declarative sentences. The experience is a lot like sitting down over tea with a witty, chatty elderly guest.
Anyone looking for insights into the music and working life of one of Canada's first great composers will be disappointed, though. The memoir is like being stuck in a gentle session of bumper cars, where one keeps being bumping into interesting people, but is forced to move on, often in a completely different direction.
Mason admits early on to not having a keen interest in the details of music, hence the book's title (which is not as original as she makes it out to be). So what we get are Little House on the Prairie-style vignettes of family life in 1920s and 1930s Toronto, a small, provincial city where the iceman drops off his weekly block of refrigerator ice, family pets roam each other's backyards freely, and the streetcar drivers greet you by name.
You could call it Little House on the Ravine. The comfortable, three-storey Edwardian painted-brick house still stands proudly in Moore Park, within boy-scouting distance of the ravine that runs alongside Mt. Pleasant Rd.
Anyone who has heard tell of Toronto's Protestant roots will have their worst fears confirmed, as Mason tells us of how the Eaton's department store at College Park would draw curtains across its display windows on Saturday evenings, so that Sunday pedestrians would not be tempted by worldly goods.
Mason did not get involved in the musical life at the Toronto Conservatory (now the Royal Conservatory) and the University of Toronto, where her father taught. Nor did she find much of interest at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, where Willan worked as organist and choirmaster from 1921 until his death, and the source of Willan's greatest musical inspiration. As her memoir meanders along, we do end up with a sort of catalogue of Willan's large body of work, but Mason rarely comments on it.
Dozens of family acquaintances flow through the narrative -- most of them seminal figures in Toronto's slow cultural awakening. The most colourful has to be local theatre pioneer Dora Mavor Moore, who we meet as a single mother forced by circumstances to move in to a log cabin on Bathurst St. with a hand pump for cold water in the kitchen.
As is typical of pre-mid-20th century Anglo-Saxon family life, there is no sudden display of emotion, no tattling, no poking in dark corners to probe for psychological insight or grudging confession.
There are touching moments, though, like this vignette from the day after her mother's death:
The same night, after everyone had gone home, Dad and I went up to his study, his 'junk room' he called it, because he chucked everything musical in there somewhere. We were just going over the day's events quietly when suddenly he jumped up, went to the piano, and began to play. He must have played non-stop for at least half and hour. It was music that I had never heard before and it was transcendentally lovely, ethereal. I asked him what it was, and he said very quietly, with his head bowed, "I was just thinking of your Mother." At last I understood: for all their seeming aloofness to each other at times, and always in public, they simply adored each other.
If you think, as I do, that the little details of daily life -- what the French call "la petite histoire" -- means something, then Mason's little memoir is well worth a weekend's meander.
In honour of Willan, and Remembrance Day tomorrow, here is a Memorial University choir (in Newfoundland) singing Willan's How They So Softly Rest: