Thursday, April 5, 2012

Missa Solis, Requiem For Eli

When composer Nigel Westlake's 21 year old son was suddenly and tragically killed in 2008, he didn't think he'd be able to write music again.  An entire year went by before Westlake realized he couldn't spend the rest of his life stuck in grief.

Walking back into the studio again after so much time, he found a previously written piece lying on his desk called Missa Solis.  He'd forgotten about the piece and began thumbing through it again, finding an old Italian poem he had put to music about the sun.  It reads, "My joy is born every time I gaze at my beautiful sun, but my life dies when I cannot look at it. For the very sight is bliss to me. Oh sun, immortal life giver, do not hide, for I know that when I am unable to see you, life could not be worse."

In his current grief stricken state, the context changed.  All he could think about was his son, the similarities to the sun could not be ignored.  He began to write and work again, using this poem as a starting point. Daily his work became like therapy, a way to put the spirit of his son to rest.

The orchestral requiem premiered in October 2011 with the Sydney Symphony, but has just recently won Australia's Orchestral Work of the Year.

The work is in 8 movements, lasting 44 minutes. It really is breathtaking, and I encourage you to listen to it in its entirety.  You can watch video from the premiere from by following this link.

The titles of the movements are as follows: Prologue, At the Edge, Song of Transience, Aurora, Nasce la gioia mia, Hymn to the Atan, Sidereus Nuncius, and O Sol Almo Imortal.  

Some of the themes are less subtle when dealing with death, as the Song of Transience which is an excerpt from the Tibetan book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. There is a solo in this movement, by a young male treble singer. I couldn't help but think of Westlake's own son as the boy sang.  To read more notes from each movement visit this website written by Westlake himself.

If you cannot listen to the entire orchestral work, YouTube does have snippets from the 5th movement and the final movement.  You can hear the climactic choral section below, interspersed with percussion that reminds one of fireworks or gunshots. Just when you think it is over a sudden quiet and peaceful ending with the strings section occurs, symbolizing a laying to rest.

Once again, from death, art has been created. I'm grateful to artists like Nigel Westlake for courageously allowing us to experience the process.

*photo from the Australian Broadcasting Network piece on Nigel Westlake. 

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