Wojciech Kilar

Wojciech Kilar, fot. Wojciech Druszcz / East NewsWojciech Kilar, photo by: Wojciech Druszcz / East News

Composer and pianist, author of orchestral music, chamber vocal-instrumental and piano compositions, and scores for the theatre and cinema. Author of music for films such as Roman Polański's The Pianist or Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula. Born on the 17th of July 1932 in Lviv, died on the 29th December 2013.

Table of contents: | CareerAwards and Distinctions Major works |

Until 1974, when he composed the symphonic poem Krzesany, possibly his most famous work, Kilar was viewed as a leader of the Polish musical vanguard. His achievements included Riff 62 (1962), a composition that was ultra-modern in both sound and form and a work became a symbol of rebellion against tradition, a manifesto of progress. Kilar's timing with Riff 62 was excellent and the piece brought him success at the Warsaw Autumn Festival when the Silesian Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra under Karol Stryja offered several encores, something that was unheard of in contemporary music. Kilar repeated this success with his subsequent two compositions -Generique (1963) and Diphtongos (1964). Then came a fascination for a different avant-garde - minimal music, as a result of which he produced two works: Upstairs-Downstairs (1971) and Prelude and Carol (1972).


Kilar attended the State College of Music (currently the Music Academy) in Katowice, where he studied piano performance and composition under Bolesław Woytowicz. He graduated with top honours and was awarded a diploma in 1955. Between 1955 and 1958 he was a post-graduate student under Woytowicz at Krakow's State College of Music (currently the Music Academy). In 1957, he participated in the International New Music Summer Course in Darmstadt. Kilar expanded on his musical education in Paris in 1959-60, when a scholarship from the French government allowed him to study composition under Nadia Boulanger.

Wojciech Kilar, Krzesany

He was one of the founding members of the Karol Szymanowski Society, established in 1977 in the mountain town of Zakopane. Kilar chaired the Katowice chapter of the Association of Polish Composers for many years and from 1979-81 was vice chairman of this association's national board. He was also a member of the Repertoire Committee for the 'Warsaw Autumn' International Festival of Contemporary Music. In 1991 Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi made a biographical film about the composer titled Wojciech Kilar.

Kilar has said he believed he had discovered the philosopher's stone, and that "there was nothing more beautiful than the solitary sound or concord that lasted eternally, that this was the deepest wisdom, nothing like our tricks with sonata allegros, fugues, and harmonics." In his twelve-minute composition Upstairs-Downstairs, we hear two sounds, uninterrupted, from the very beginning to the very end of the piece.

The perspective that comes with time shows us that Krzesany was a logical consequence of this minimalist chapter in Kilar's life: it is in itself a type of minimal music in reverse. However, Krzesany caused a shock when first performed a quarter century ago. It proved exceedingly popular among rank-and-file music lovers, while professionals viewed it as something false. In spite of this the work gained popularity over time and continues to be performed and to draw significant audiences.

Kilar was unwilling to give audiences and critics a rest and two years after Krzesany wrote another piece inspired by the mountains. Titled Kościelec 1909 (1976), the work was dedicated to Mieczysław Karłowicz, a renowned composer who perished in an avalanche on the slopes of Mount Kościelec in 1909, at the relatively young age of 33 years. This was followed by Siwa mgła / Grey Mist, for baritone and orchestra (1979), and Orawa, for chamber ensemble (1986).

Kilar remained faithful to the style he defined for himself in these works throughout his career. Having abandoned avant-garde technical means almost entirely, he continued to employ a simplified musical language, in which sizeable masses of sound would serve as a backdrop for highlighted melodies that are often emotionally potent. This would occur in those compositions that were referencing folk music (especially Polish Highlander folk melodies) and in patriotic and religious pieces that reflected the composer's deep religious faith and devotion to his country. The building blocks for Kilar's film music were similar, and this specialization had helped the composer gain far-reaching fame throughout the world. Although it was his cooperation with Francis Ford Coppola on Dracula (1992) that consolidated the composer's position in the film world, it seems that the films of Krzysztof Zanussi have inspired Kilar to the highest levels artistic achievement.

Awards and Distinctions

Wojciech Kilar received numerous awards for his artistic activity and achievements, including prizes from the Lili Boulanger Foundation in Boston (1960), the Minister of Culture and Art (1967, 1975), the Association of Polish Composers (1975), the Katowice province (1971, 1976, 1980), and the city of Katowice (1975, 1992). He was also awarded the First Class Award of Merit of the Polish Republic (1980), the Alfred Jurzykowski Foundation Prize in New York (1984), the 'Solidarity' Independent Trade Union Cultural Committee Arts Award (1989), the Wojciech Korfanty Prize (1995), the 'Lux ex Silesia' Prize bestowed by the Archbishop and Metropolitan of Katowice (1995), and the Sonderpreis des Kulturpreis Schlesien des Landes Niedersachsen (1996).

Kilar's film scores also won him many honours. He received the award for best score for his score for Ziemia obiecana / The Promised Land (dir. Andrzej Wajda) at the Festival of Polish Films in Gdansk in 1975. This was followed up by the Prix Louis Delluc, which Kilar was awarded in 1980 for the music to an animated film titled Le Roi et L'oiseau / The King and the Mockingbird, (dir. Paul Grimault). One year later he collected an award at the Cork International Film Festival for the music to Papież Jan Pawel II / Pope John Paul II / Da un paese lontano: Papa Giovanni Paulo II (dir. Krzysztof Zanussi). Perhaps his greatest success came with his score to Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, for which Kilar received the ASCAP Award 1992 from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Producers in Los Angeles and the prize for best score in a horror film in San Francisco in 1992. The Polish State Cinema Committee honored Kilar with a lifetime achievement award in 1991, while in 1976 he was decorated with the Cavaliers' Cross of the Order of the Restitution of Poland. In May 2012 he received the Order of the White Eagle from the President of Poland Bronisław Komorowski “in recognition of his services for the Polish culture and outstanding achievements in his creative work”. In 2012 he was also a special guest of the 5th edition of the Film Music Festival in Kraków.

Major works:

  • Symphony No. 1 for strings (1955)
  • Mała uwertura / Small Overture for orchestra (1955)
  • Symphony No. 2 'Sinfonia concertante' for piano and grand symphony orchestra (1956)
  • Ode to Bela Bartok - in Memoriam for violin, brass, and double percussion (1957)
  • Koncert na dwa fortepiany i orkiestre perkusyjna / Concerto for two pianos and percussive orchestra (1958)
  • Riff 62 for orchestra (1962)
  • Generique for orchestra (1963)
  • Diphtongos for mixed choir and orchestra (1964)
  • Springfield Sonnet for orchestra (1965)
  • Music to the film Salto (1965)
  • Solenne per 67 Esecutori (1967)
  • Film score for Sami swoi / Our Folks (1967)
  • Training 68 for clarinet, trombone, cello, and piano (1968)
  • Film score for Rejs / The Cruise (1970)
  • Upstairs-Downstairs for two children's choirs and orchestra (1971)
  • Przygrywka i kolęda / Prelude and Christmas Carol for 4 oboes and strings (1972)
  • Krzesany - a symphonic poem (1974)
  • Film score for Ziemia obiecana / The Promised Land (1974)
  • Bogurodzica / Mother of God for mixed chorus and orchestra (1975)
  • Kościelec 1909 - a symphonic poem (1976)
  • Siwa mgła / Grey Mist for baritone voice and orchestra (1979)
  • Exodus per orchestra e coro misto (1979-1981)
  • Film score for Z dalekiego kraju: Papież Jan Pawel II / From a Far-away Country: Pope John Paul II / Da un paese lontano: Papa Giovanni Paulo II (1981)
  • Angelus for soprano, mixed choir, and symphony orchestra (1982-1984)
  • Orawa for chamber string orchestra (1986)
  • Film score for Kronika wypadków miłosnych (A Chronicle of Amorous Accidents) (1986)
  • Film score for Korczak (1990)
  • Film score for Dracula (1992)
  • Film score for Death and the Maiden (1994)
  • Concerto for piano and orchestra (1996-1997)
  • Film score for Portret damy / Portrait of a Lady (1997)
  • Film score for Pan Tadeusz (1999)
  • Missa pro Pace for soprano, alto, tenor, bass, mixed choir, and symphony orchestra (2000)
  • Film score for Życie jako śmiertelna choroba przenoszona drogą płciową (Life as a Fatal Illness Contracted Through Sexual Activity), directed by Krzysztof Zanussi (2000)
  • Introitus for the organ (2000)
  • Film score for The Pianist, directed by Roman Polański (2002)
  • Film score for Zemsta, directed by Andrzej Wajda (2002)
  • Film score for Suplement, direced by Krzysztof Zanussi (2002)
  • Symphony No. 3 September Symphony (2003)
  • Lament for a mixed choir (2003)
  • Symphony No. 4 Sinfonia de motu for soprano, baritone, mixed choir and symphonic orchestra (2005)
  • Film score for Persona non grata, directed by Krzysztof Zanussi (2005)
  • Ricordanza for string orchestra (2005)
  • Magnificat for solo voices, choir and orchestra (2006)
  • Film score for Królowie nocy directed by James Gray (2007)
  • Symphony No. 5 Adwentowa for a mixed choir and orchestra (2007)
  • Film score for Czarne słońce directed by Krzysztof Zanussi (2007)
  • Film score for Krew jest sednem życia directed by Kim Aubry (2007)
  • Film score for Serce na dłoni directed by Krzysztof Zanussi (2008)
  • Film score for Poste restante directed by Marcel Łoziński (2008)
  • Te Deum for solo voices, choir and orchestra (2008)
  • Paschal Hymn for a mixed choir (2008)
  • Veni Creator for a mixed choir and string orchestra (2008)
  • Film score for Rewizyta directed by Krzysztof Zanussi (2009)
  • Uwertura uroczysta (Solemn Overture) for orchestra (2010)
  • Concerto II  for piano, violin and orchestra (2011)

Source: Polish Music Information Center, Polish Composers' Union, November 2001, last update: February 2013.

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