The renowned Wojciech Kilar had a fascinating life outside his musical career. Culture.pl's looks at some of the lesser known stories behind the Polish composer.
Wojciech Kilar, photo by Piotr Małecki/ Forum
A Silesian from Lviv
„I am a Silesian born in Lviv” - the composer, born on the 17the July 1932, would say. He first commenced his musical education in Lviv, attending piano classes at a school led by Misses Reiss, whom he actually was not particularly fond of. Lviv is also the place where spent the years of the Second World War – which was an exceptionally hard and cruel period – in September 1939 the city was heavily bombarded, to later become occupied by the Soviet army (the city saw arrest of 2000 Polish officers, who were later murdered by the NKVD in Kharkiv), as well as the German one (the Nazis would execute a systematic liquidation of Polish intellectual elite and the Jewery of Lviv, who constituted over 30% of the entire population).
In spite of that, Wojciech Kilar remembers his place of birth as:
A beautiful, marvellous Polish city, and these are not just my personal feelings deriving from the fact that I’m a Lvivian. I know certain persons who have travelled the world, and have seen Rome, Paris, London, New York, Athens […] and, who, upon their first visit to Lviv will say: my God, we had no idea you were coming from such a wonderful city. (Klaudia Podobińska, Leszek Polony, Cieszę się darem życia /I Cherish the Gift of Life, Polish Music Publishing House, 1997)
His music is frequently played at the concert halls of Lviv, but the composer never went back to the city – he was weary of having to face the hurtful emotions and of confronting his memories with reality.
That Lviv does not exist anymore, those people, the spiritual and cultural atmosphere – all of this is gone. I had a dream once that I was walking around Lviv and crying all the time. (Alicja Dołowska, Kilar nasz narodowy, [in:] Niedziela no. 29, 2012)
Wojciech Kilar, photo by Piotr Małecki/ Forum
In 1944, he and his mother (Neonilla Kilar, a theatre actress) left for the Subcarpathian region – first to Krosno, and then Rzeszów. In the latter city, he met professor Kazimierz Mirski, thanks to whom he became involved with music for good. Mirski taught him how to play grand piano, introduced him to the music of the 20th century artists, among them Claude Debussy and Karol Szymanowski, and encouraged him to try out his compositional skills. Kilar received an award at the Competition of Young Talents in Rzeszów, and later moved to Cracow. The big city atmosphere didn't serve his education and creativity, however: social life was drawing him away from the piano. In 1950, he moved to Katowice, where he commenced his higher education.
Katowice gave me everything: wonderful, serious musical environment, wonderful school, wonderful friends, wonderful wife, whom I met here; the wonderful Silesian Church, Silesian work ethos, and peaceful atmosphere to work in – one of the few representatives of Polish minimalist music would say.
Wojciech Kilar's first true success as a composer was the Small Overture for orchestra, which first premiered on the 25th of June in Katowice, when the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra under Jan Krenz's direction, performed it. Small Overture received the 2nd Prize at the Youth Festival in Warsaw, and its script was published by the Polish Music Publishing House – which made it the first of Kilar's pieces to see print. “The composition is characterized by rhythmical motorics, big contrasts of tempo, and intense climaxes set against steadily pulsating rhythm” - thus the Polish Music Publishing House introduces us to the piece. Small Overture is an expression of Kilar's youthful, neoclassical fascinations.
Wojciech Kilar, photo by: Wojciech Druszcz / East News
Wojciech Kilar was one of the representatives of the 'Polish School of Composition' – a term used by the music critics (initially by those from Germany, for that is where the name was coined) to describe the young composers working between the 1950s and 1960s, who radically broke with socialist realism. They would present their musical ideas at festivals, predominantly at Warsaw Autumn, where they would be received by a vast part of their contemporary audience (and critics) as iconoclastic, clamorous, and disrespectful towards tradition.
One of the symbols of such renouncement of traditions is Riff 62 (written in 1962, as the title implies) which reaches out to the style of Jazz. We hear a lot of brass instruments, a choice rarely made by the old music masters: 2 clarinets, 3 saxophones, 4 trumpets, and 4 trombones, next to piano solo, two percussion ensembles with vibraphone-xylorimba and leather instruments, as well as 36 violins and 12 double basses. The premiere performance of Riff 62 took place at the Warsaw Autumn. The musicians of the Symphony Orchestra of the Silesian Philharmonic, with Karol Stryja as conductor, had to play encore, an occurrence which is uncommon at contemporary music festivals. In Riff, one is able to find the elements that would later keep recurring in the compositions of the Lvivian-Silesian artist: there is the unrestrained vitality, materializing in sudden eruptions of sound, and on the other hand – the simplicity and moderation, expressed though a limited range of sounds used by the composer.
Riff 62 was dedicated to Nadia Boulanger, a renowned Pairsian composition teacher, who educated many of the classics of the 20th century music, to name but a few: Phillip Glass, Astor Piazzola, Pierre Henry, Grażyna Błażewicz, and Aaron Copeland. Kilar attended her classes in 1959, when he travelled to Paris on a scholarship financed by the French government.
One of the passions of the author of Dracula's score was American culture, a proof of which is to be found in Springfield Sonnet from 1965. The title makes a reference to Springfield, IL, where Abraham Lincoln spent 17 years of his life. Kilar cited an excerpt from Walt Whitman's poem Hush’d Be the Camps To-Day, commemorating the American President. Only two years before Kilar completed his piece, John F. Kennedy died, also in an assassination; Kilar's composition may thus act as a commentary to those events.
As they invault the coffin there;
Sing—as they close the doors of earth upon him—one verse,
For the heavy hearts of soldiers (W. Whitman, Hush’d Be the Camps To-Day)
Krzesany is a folk dance from the Podhale region in the south of Poland, and a symphonic poem written by Wojciech Kilar in 1974, which may be described as the best illustration of the aesthetic coup that took place after the composer backed away from the musical avant-garde. "Krzesanie" is a name of a dance sequence, in which the dancers click their heels in a characteristic manner; Jan Krenz, who conducted the premiere performance (also at the Warsaw Autumn) said: "Kilar opened the window wide and invited the fresh 'goral' breeze to the room of Polish music."
Krzesany would be described by some as an articulation of radical eclecticism (which from today's perspective would be referred to as postmodernist), while others would locate it in the romantic tradition, due to its folk inspirations. Kilar would often refer to Krzesany as one of his favourite compositions, and it indeed is one that is truly iconic for his oeuvre. He was perfectly aware of the situation an unprepared listener would find himself in, when first exposed to the piece – not being able to tell whether the author of the melody was a refined avant-gardist or a simple organ player from Podhale.
Waltz from The Promised Land
Ziemia obiecana - trailer from Culture.pl on Vimeo.
Wojciech Kilar composed scores to over 130 films, mostly Polish, but his compositions could also be found in the masterpieces of international cinema. For Polish audiences, one of his most recognized film themes is the waltz from The Promised Land by Andrzej Wajda, who said that for Kilar "the title of the film was sufficient to score a perfect track."
"Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously” - one will read in the Book of Exodus as well as in Wojciech Kilar's Exodus for mixed choir and orchestra from 1981. While writing this piece, Kilar was also working on music to Peter Lillienthal's film David, which was depicting the history of Shoah from the perspective of a son of rabbi from Berlin. Kilar was drawing inspiration from a Jewish song-book, in which he came across a klezmer motif that would not let go of his mind. It eventually became the lead theme of Exodus. We continue to hear a chord in E minor, which is to act as a reference to the crescendo in Bolero by Mauricio Ravel, one of Kilar's favourite composers.
The literalness with which Kilar reaches out to Ravel would provoke a smile on the faces of some of the listeners, while some of the others would read Exodus as a symbol of struggle with the communist regime. The fragment of the Book of Exodus used by the composer is normally sung during Purim, and relates to the victory of Maccabeus over Haman – it is a call to a fight uttered by the people of Israel. It should be interesting to note that Kilar chose this excerpt unaware of its liberationist context.
I wasn't directly reminded of the riots and anxieties haunting the Polish society, although back then in the 1970s something was already „in the air”, one could somehow sense the upcoming changes.
Angelus and Jasna Góra
Wojciech Kilar, 2007, Warsaw, photo by: Stefan Maszewski / Reporter / East News
„Creativity must be rooted in a profound spiritual need” - Kilar would say. A vast part of his compositions carried direct connotations with the Roman-Catholic Church. He would describe Angelus, written in 1984, as his first truly religious work. It was commissioned by the Jasna Góra Monastery in Częstochowa, with the intention of having it performed at the unveiling of the renovated main altar. The Monastery was one of the most important places on Kilar's spiritual map:
When the Martial law started, I began visiting Jasna Góra more frequently. I came here once for a painting field trip with Jerzy Duda Gracz and got to know the Monastery a little bit better at that time. Later, I would repeatedly stay there. During the period of the Martial law the Monastery was my shelter […] Over there, by the altar, and by the painting of Our Lady, I could feel free. I felt that all of that didn't matter, that this difficult period which we were going through was just temporary, and that Virgin Mary would not abandon us, but help us to get out of that situation. It is there that I found free Poland.
The form of Angelus was inspired by rosary - the choir says the Angelic Salutation prayer. First it recites it in a standard manner, as one would when saying a prayer, to then enter a more expressive tone – until everything transforms into singing („a melodic pleading, begging, and finally, a dramatic request to Mary” - Leszek Polony, a music critic, wrote once of the piece), and eventually calms down again, returning to meditative declamation.
Zanussi and Kutz
Wojciech Kilar, 2007, Warsaw, photo by: Stefan Maszewski / Reporter / East News
„To me, the function of music in film, or film music in general, is not interesting in the least” - the composer would say, rather coquettishly. It is thanks to him that we remember films of Krzysztof Zanussi or Kazimierz Kutz for more than the images and scripts, i.e. for the sound. Kilar wrote music to all films by Zanussi – even to the short ones, which all in all amounts to 40 titles.
It is the only composer I have ever worked with. He would complain that writing music for my films was not an easy task, because they lacked violent emotions – Zanussi said in an interview for the Polish paper Rzeczpospolita – Wojciech fell ill a few days before handing the score for my Foreign Body over to the copyist, and said that he could not make them available to me, because the end result was not yet completely thought through and finished […] And what I heard from him then will remain a mystery to me forever: 'well, finally I found some more passion and more contrast in one of your films’.
Serce na dloni - trailer from Culture.pl on Vimeo.
He became close with Kazimierz Kutz thanks to Silesia. „We grew very fond of one another, he became a close friend of mine – hugely interesting, lively, intelligent. He was a cinema buff, a Jazz person, with a head full of fresh ideas. He made all of my 'Silesian' films together with me – Kilar was brought up in Silesia, attached to it, and educated there.” - the director recounted.
Wojciech Kilar, photo by: Andrzej Hrechorowicz / Forum
Kilar was finding his sacrum not only at the Monastery of Jasna Góra, but also in the Tatra mountains. He would climb the peaks of Kościelec (one of his compositions was in fact titled Kościelec 1909) and Czerwone Wierchy, admire the Morskie Oko lake, and then immerse in the music of the Goral bands. Several paragraphs earlier, I mentioned the postmodernist Krzesany; Orawa for 15 strings was more conventional in its form and marked the closure of his Tatra cycle.
ORAWA - Screen & Sound Fest. project from Tving Stage Design on Vimeo.
Kilar, the Fearsome
He wrote music to a tremendous amount of films, but he would always diminish his achievements in this field; he always preferred to talk about his „classical” output. He wrote music to both filmic masterpieces, associated with high culture, and to lighter titles – he became most fluent in writing scores to horror films, although he didn't work on those too often.
Bram Stoker s Dracula - Trailer from Culture.pl on Vimeo.
First came the proposition from Francis Ford Coppola, unexpected and extremely important for Kilar, as The Godfather was one of the Polish composer's favourite films. Thanks to this collaboration, the soundtrack to Bram Stoker's Dracula came into being. Kilar received many awards for it, the most important of which may the one that author received for best score in a horror film in San Francisco in 1992 – maybe a niche prize, but a thematic one. Later on, he composed music to Polański's The Ninth Gate, in which the vocal line from the lead motif has been compared to the famous vocals from Rosemary's Baby by the same film director.
The Ninth Gate - Trailer from Culture.pl on Vimeo.
Polański is an exceptional director – Kilar would recount in an interview for Polish online film publication Stopklatka – he is extremely attentive to detail, a perfectionist. I remember how we would play fragments from the film on a little TV set, and I was simultaneously trying to play music to go with them. This is how we would work on the details of the compositions. I ended up writing music in the same manner as the film was made.
Following Dracula, Kilar would keep on receiving subsequent propositions of composing horror film music, and he cemented his position within the pantheon of the Hollywood composers. He was even offered to score The Lord of the Rings, which made him particularly happy. Why this collaboration was never finalized – it is hard to tell. Perhaps the creators of the film insisted on too much interference with Kilar's ideas, or maybe he wasn't happy about the financial conditions? After all, as he used to say, about his biggest concerns when taking up a job in film industry:
First thing I'm interested in is the name of the director. The second – the fee I'm offered. The third thing for me to do is to read the script. If these three elements are acceptable, I decide to take the offer. In any other case, I deny it.
Kilar, the Classic
Pan Tadeusz - trailer from Culture.pl on Vimeo.
All of Kilar’s compositions from the rebellious period of the Polish School of Composition, bracketed by the folkloristic strokes and religious pieces, cannot be equaled to the resonance the composer managed to achieve in one, very simple, and extremely melodic composition – Polonaise from Andrzej Wajda's Pan Tadeusz. After all, it is still the most popular Polonaise in Poland, annually played at school proms throughout Poland.
Sonnets for Basia
Wojciech Kilar with his wife, Andrzej Hrechorowicz / Forum
The most important person in Wojciech Kilar's life was his wife, Barbara, whom he would tenderly nickname Basia. They met in the building of the Katowice Music Academy – she just graduated from sixth form, he was 22 and in his final year of studies.
Sometimes I think to myself that it really was a matter of several seconds or minutes, as, had I not walked down that way at the time, Basia would never catch my eye – Wojciech Kilar reminisced in one interview – I thank God for that single moment that influenced the rest of my life, which may have taken an entirely different path, had I come across someone with a different vision of the world.
“My wife – just like Virgin Mary – led me to God” - Kilar confessed. After her death, he was too shy to walk the streets on his own. „I feel like a worse type without that best part of me. I am not saying this out of courtesy, in my opinion the female part of a married couple is truly the better half.” In 2012, he wrote Sonnets for Laura for baritone and piano. He used texts by Petrarch – out of 300 of them, he selected two that dealt with love during lifetime and two about love after death
"When she left, I was unbelievably afraid of leaving Katowice and going to places, in which we used to spend time together. But soon it turned out that she also went there with me and still accompanies me at all times.”
Barbara Kilar died on the 27th of November 2007. Wojciech Kilar died on the 29th of December 2013.
Author: Filip Lech, 29.12.2013, Translated by: Anna Micińska, 29.12.2013