Nigel Westlake’s new quartet, Sacred Sky, commissioned by the Australian String Quartet, had its première before an enthusiastic audience at Sydney’s Recital Hall on 4 September 2019. Westlake wrote it in honour of his sister, the artist Kate Westlake, who died of pancreatic cancer in January 2018. He is not the first composer to write a quartet on a sibling’s death: Felix Mendelssohn did that for Fanny with his Opus 80, a quartet quite unlike any of his others – raw and tempestuous, with savage outbursts of anger and grief interrupting the short passages of tender lyricism.
I sent the Mendelssohn to my own younger brother last year, when he was dying of thyroid cancer on the other side of the world, but if I’d known Nigel Westlake’s quartet at that time, I would have sent it instead. My brother, stoical himself, counselled me against anger. There is no anger that I can discern in the Westlake quartet, a work of great beauty that combines calm reflection with something like playfulness. The movements – ‘Sacred Sky’, ‘Where the Spirit Dances by the Edge of the Sea’, ‘The Turning Tide’, and ‘The Journey Begins’ – were inspired by four of Kate’s serene seascapes.