Before 2008, Nigel Westlake was simply one of our most successful composers, his many film scores complementing a growing acclaim in the concert hall. After 2008, he became a father in mourning. It was in this year that Westlake’s 21-year-old son Eli was killed, leaving the composer deep in grief and suddenly bereft of meaning. It took a whole year before Westlake could compose again and he turned to a work that, ironically, he’d already sketched before Eli’s death. Missa Solis builds on themes from Westlake’s earlier film score Solarmax, transforming mythological and astronomical references to the sun into a hymn to his tragically lost son. The 16th-century ode from which Missa Solis grows takes on a new weight in this context: “My joy is born every time I gaze at my beautiful sun”. Added to this are texts from Shakespeare, Pharaoh Akhenaten and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.
Across its eight movements, this secular mass is a focused refinement of what Westlake does best, drawing together perfectly crafted miniatures sculpted with imaginative colour and lingering emotion. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus are at their peak throughout, in clear artistic sympathy under Westlake’s guidance. The solo treble Liam Crisanti from the Sydney Children’s Choir is simply outstanding; hearing his crystalline voice, it’s hard not to picture a young Eli restored to life.
Movements such as Song of Transience and The Starry Messenger (a short essay on Galileo Galilei’s discovery of the telescope) are tunefully memorable and bound to find their way into the repertoire as standalone pieces. Aurora perhaps most closely betrays the mass’s filmic origins and seems dangerously cheerful for a requiem; the skidding winds and strings an unusually light touch in this context. However, the powerful O Sol almo immortale (O Sun immortal life-giver) with its dense choral and brass blasts, reminiscent of the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem, is a fittingly awesome conclusion.
There was a danger perhaps that such a deeply personal a project might have fallen flat; that the necessary depth of meaning for Westlake might not have translated into music. However this is not the case, evidenced not least by its Limelight Award for Best New Composition last year. Missa Solis is a triumph. It succeeds both as a strongly crafted work of conviction and in the impossible task of commemorating in sound one’s flesh and blood.