Behind every great film is a great soundtrack. Here are 6 must-know Polish composers that are masters in their field.
Krzysztof Komeda’s love for playing and composing music underlined the entirety of his tragically short life. He started to learn to play the piano at age seven, and despite his efforts to pursue a more traditional career path, he fell madly in love with jazz. Born Krzysztof Trzciński, he began to perform under the name Komeda to hide his activity in the jazz scene from his colleagues at the medical clinic where he worked. Komeda played with numerous bands and even had his own trio and quintet. He performed in Poland and all over the world and was a regular at the renowned Jazz Jamboree Festival in Warsaw.
In 1958, Komeda began to work with director Roman Polański, composing soundtracks for his films. Komeda scored all of Polański’s early films, including Knife in the Water, Cul-De-Sac and Rosemary’s Baby. He also composed soundtracks for other famous Polish directors such as Andrzej Wajda, Jerzy Hoffman and Jerzy Passendorfer. Before his untimely death at the age of 37 in 1969, Komeda scored over 40 films.
Wojciech Kilar was a prolific composer both within the realm of film and outside of it. He worked closely with Krzysztof Zanussi, scoring six of his films, and also composed the soundtracks for Andrzej Wajda’s The Promised Land and Roman Polański’s The Pianist. Kilar won many awards for his film scores but his greatest success came with his soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, for which he received the ASCAP Award in 1992.
Kilar’s compositions are best defined as modern and unorthodox, attributes that made him wildly popular in the fast-changing times of the 20th century. They often feature a mass of sound serving as a backdrop to highlight emotionally potent melodies. Often times, these pieces would reference music with strong Polish cultural relevance, including folk tunes, religious hymns and patriotic anthems. The love and pride for faith and country that Kilar was able to show in his compositions made his soundtracks perfectly suited for some particularly ‘Polish films’ such as films as Pan Tadeusz, The Pianist, and From a Faraway Country: Pope John Paul II.
Krzysztof Penderecki is one of the most decorated Polish composers of all time. He is famous for his epic pieces for large orchestras and choirs that combine avant-garde elements with more conventional harmonics. His symphonies and compositions such as Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima and Polish Requiem are performed world-wide. He has taught at conservatories around the globe and continues to inspire today’s artists, most notably Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead.
Penderecki wrote music for one full-length feature film – The Saragossa Manuscript by Wojciech Jerzy Has. This soundtrack was created in Polish Radio's Experimental Studio. Early music-like melodies are intertwined with the unsettling sounds of synthesisers and machines of the Experimental Studio. His music can be also found in Kubrick’s The Shining, Friedkin’s The Exorcist, The Mask by the Quay brothers and Shutter Island by Martin Scorsese.
Abel Korzeniowski is a newcomer to film composing relative to the others on this list. His first film score was for Jerzy Stuhr’s The Big Animal in 2000, for which he won a Golden Lion for Best Film Score at the Gdynia Film Festival. Since then, he has composed soundtracks for numerous Polish movies and television shows. In 2005, he settled down in Los Angeles, where he wrote the music for five American feature films, one short and one animated film. Among English-speaking audiences, Korzeniowski’s most well-known work is the soundtrack for the Victorian horror series Penny Dreadful.
In 2004, Korzeniowski undertook his most ambitious project, scoring the 1927 silent film Metropolis by Fritz Lang. At the Era New Horizons Film Festival, the film was shown with the 90-member Sinfonietta Cracovia orchestra performing Korzeniowski’s score accompanied by a 42-member main choir and a 60-member backing choir.
Much like Komeda worked closely with Polański and Kilar with Zanussi, Zbigniew Preisner was the favourite composer for legendary Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski. Starting in 1984 with Kieślowski’s No End, Preisner scored every one of his films until Kieślowski’s death in 1996. His soundtracks for The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colours: Red netted him awards from the French Film Academy and at the Berlin Film Festival. In 1998, he wrote Requiem for My Friend dedicated to Kieślowski’s memory.
Preisner has composed music for more than eighty feature, documentary and short films, winning a number of prestigious awards. He has been involved in interesting projects outside of the film realm as well. In 2005, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd chose Zbigniew Preisner to arrange 9 of his songs for a 40–member string orchestra, which became the album On an Island. In 2013, he realised the Diaries of Hope project, based on children’s memories of the Holocaust.
Jan A.P. Kaczmarek
Jan A.P. Kaczmarek is one of the most accomplished film score composers of his time. He has scored over fifty feature and documentary films, along with several theatrical scores. The crowning achievement of his career so far came in 2005 when he received the American Film Academy Award for Best Original Soundtrack for Marc Foster’s Finding Neverland, beating out the legendary John Williams.
Kaczmarek has collaborated regularly with Agnieszka Holland, with whom he worked on the Total Eclipse, Washington Square and The Miracle. He also wrote the film scores for Janusz Kamiński's directing debut Lost Souls and Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Quo Vadis. In 2005, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Gdańsk Agreement and the founding of the union Solidarność, Kaczmarek composed the Cantata of Freedom, an expansive work in five movements scored for over 200 musicians. The Cantata was performed in Gdańsk on 31st August 2005.