Wojciech Kilar: Award-winning writer of film score for 'The Pianist' who had a gift for creating visual images in sound


Marcus Williamson
Tuesday 31 December 2013 01:00 GMT
Kilar's early orchestral music was compared with op art
Kilar's early orchestral music was compared with op art (EPA)

Wojciech Kilar was a prolific classical composer who was best known outside his native Poland for his work on scores for more than 130 films, including Roman Polanski's The Pianist (2002) and Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992).

Kilar was born in Lviv, Poland (now western Ukraine) in 1932. His father, a doctor, and mother, an actress, encouraged the reluctant young musician to play the piano. In 1944, he and his family were among the many Poles who were deported from their home towns during the Soviet occupation. As a teenager in Rzeszow, south-eastern Poland, he met Professor Kazimierz Mirski, who introduced him to the music of Ravel, Debussy and Szymanowski. In these composers Kilar at last found works that he could enjoy playing.

Following the war, Kilar continued his studies and graduated with top honours from the State Music Academy in Katowice, in 1955. Five years later he won his first award, the Lili Boulanger prize for composition, and went on to study under Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

The period of the early Sixties, following the death of Stalin and the resulting Polish "cultural thaw", had a liberating effect on musical culture, allowing avant-garde composition to break free from more traditional styles. Kilar was soon heralded as one of the three leading neoclassicist composers in Poland, alongside the giants Krzysztof Penderecki, who outlives him, and Henryk Gorecki, who died in 2010.

Kilar believed that his entree into the world of film music came as a result of a performance of his innovative work Riff 62 by the New York Philharmonic in 1963 and a prominent critic's response to it. The composer recalled: "Harold Schonberg ... wrote of this work that one 'sees' it on hearing it; that it's like musical op art. This I think in part is because I've been greatly influenced by the Impressionists – Debussy and Ravel – whose music is also of that type that is really seen." He suggested that film-makers took an interest in him "because my music seems to correlate with pictures and images, and of the sort conducive to the development of mental images". A string of film score credits followed, at first in his native country and later in French and Hollywood productions.

By the mid-1970s Kilar had returned to traditional sources of inspiration for his orchestral compositions, in religious music and folklore. "At a certain moment," he later commented, "I realised that all possibilities for producing shock reactions by means of sound resources, the search for new sound sources – all had been exhausted." His 1974 piece, a symphonic poem titled Krzesany ("Sparking Dance"), was one of the first of this new phase. Influenced by the music from the Tatra range of southern Poland, it "let fresh mountain air into the musty rooms of Polish contemporary music", according to the conductor Jan Krenz.

Religion had a powerful influence throughout Kilar's life. He said: "I would like to be remembered as a good human being, someone who brought a little happiness, hope and reflection into life and into the world and perhaps a bit of faith by those religious pieces." He also noted that "if I were to die seeing that just one person had converted because of me, I would have been satisfied".

For Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), Kilar recalled asking Coppola what he expected from the film music. The director replied: "I did my part. You are the composer. Do what you want." The resulting score won Kilar the Best Score Composer award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

He was invited by the director Jane Campion to provide music for Portrait of a Lady (1996), an adaptation of the novel by Henry James, starring Nicole Kidman and Viggo Mortensen. Later, the composer spoke of his meeting with the director and first impressions. "I enjoyed the film wildly from the start", he recalled, adding that he had swiftly arrived at "... the first few notes of this very important motif I had by the time I was just halfway through the film".

Kilar was at his peak with the musical score for The Pianist (2002), the biographical war drama directed by Roman Polanski. He had previously worked with Polanski on The Ninth Gate (1999), starring Johnny Depp and Frank Langella, and Death and the Maiden (1994) with Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley. In The Pianist, as with all his work for film, his composition complements the script and direction, enhancing the audience's experience. The movie received a Bafta award for Best Film the following year, and was nominated for Best Music, as well as gaining a César Award for Best Music.

Jerzy Kornowicz, head of the Association of Polish Composers, said: "The power and the message of his music, as well as the noble character of Wojciech Kilar as a person, will stay in my memory for ever."

The director Kazimierz Kutz said that working with Kilar on films was "pure pleasure". Of their collaboration he said: "He would come, see my movie and a month later he would bring extremely good music that was always beyond my expectations."

Wojciech Kilar, composer: born Lviv, Poland 17 July 1932; married 1966 Barbara Pomianowska (died 2007); died Katowice, Poland 29 December 2013.

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