Remembering Wojciech Kilar: A Portrait of a Gentleman
“Before the war, all children from intelligentsia homes would learn to play piano, so my parents have sent me to a music school. I found it to be really difficult. Couldn’t understand what a stave is and what are all those notes are for, it was incredibly tiresome. My parents chose to continue my education and I finally managed to figure out how one reads those black dots with tails, which a friend of mine used to call 'polliwogs'.”
On the twenty-ninth of December 2014 passed away one of the most beloved composer Poland has ever known. Many of his friends suggested he just couldn’t wait to reunite with his late wife Barbara, who succumbed to illness back in 2007. Kilar apparently was madly in love with her ever since they met back in the sixties. “It was a love from first sight. I am grateful to God for that moment, which had such an impact on my life. It could have turned into a completely different direction, if I had met a person with a different vision. It is from her that I learned modesty for example, and luckily never succumbed to so-called Hollywood career”
Born in 1932 in Lwow (a part of Poland before the second World War) and the son of a doctor and an actress, Kilar was forced to move away from his birthplace in 1945 and chose never to come back. He became a pianist and studied music in Kraków and then subsequently Katowice, where he remained till his death. In the sixties, Wojciech started his career as an avant garde concert composer. Along with his two colleagues, Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki (of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ fame) and Krzysztof Penderecki, he created a Polish school of then-new musical sonorism. It was at that time that some of his more experimental pieces were created - such as Riff 62 and Springfield Sonnet. He soon abandoned this path and in the seventies turned to traditional music for inspiration. This was a risky decision because the communist regime had tried to eradicate any trace of such music and culture. But Kilar, much criticised at the time for succumbing to kitsch and simplicity, created some of his most famous works in this period like Orawa, the highlands-inspired Krzesany and, of course, Exodus (later used in the Schindler's List trailer). To this day, Krzysztof Penderecki is full of admiration for this music, stating that Kilar got closer to folk culture closer than any other musician known to him, making a seamless combination of the idiom with the orchestral concert world.
“I’ve gone through that as well, taking part in the explosion of Polish avant garde, which around 1960 created a truly apocalyptic music. In this particular moment, thanks to this conversation, I’ve come to realise that me coming back to tradition, to universal and eternal values, was a defensive reflex, a sign of optimism. I’ve created Bogurodzica, and, in 1974, Krzesany, which created a lot of stir. From the horror of the ending world, I turned to hope, to goodness.”
His adventure with the medium of film started in 1958 when he composed the score for Natalia Brzozowska's film Narciarze (Skiers). Since then, he forged strong relationships with many Polish directors, such as Kazimierz Kutz (particularly with so-called Silesian trilogy), Tadeusz Konwicki, and Krzysztof Kieslowski (on Przypadek from 1981). Perhaps the biggest two collaborators were the intellectuals Krzyszof Zanussi and Oscar winner Andrzej Wajda, for whom Kilar worked on countless scores. Incidentally, Kilar would apparently jokingly complain to the composer that he doesn’t write the kind of music for his films as he does for Wajda’s. To which the composer replied that if he made the same type of films, he would get the same type of music.
Eventually, Wojciech would venture into the world of mainstream cinema. “A dream of my youth came true. The world of film, especially American, fascinated me since childhood. Even during the occupation, when 'only pigs go to cinema' slogan was a motto, I couldn’t resist the magic of silver screen. The songs from Disney’s Snow White still work for me the same way as Mozart’s music…”
The adventure began when the director Francis Ford Coppola called him in the middle of the night (something that Hollywood seems to have made a habit out of). After unsuccessfully trying to persuade another Polish composer - Witold Lutoslawski - to provide the music (who required way too much time), the director finally found somone that would supply him with a suitably Slavic soul for Bram Stoker's Dracula. Of course, Kilar travelled to the new continent to meet his collaborator, but upon his arrival, he suffered from a heart attack and ended up in hospital. Convinced that in this light his services won’t be required, Wojciech returned home. But, in the end, he scored the film anyway. Or rather, wrote several pieces that would be then later adapted, extended and manipulated during sessions and mixing to cover all necessary dramatic beats. Coppola himself has stated that there was very little music composed - just a “few” pieces. Regardless of that, the film became a success and Kilar became somewhat of a household name and a master of horror scoring. Something that a devout Catholic like him would find a bit puzzling.
One of the best known working relationships he had was with Roman Polanski, working on three of his films (Death and the Maiden, The Ninth Gate, and The Pianist). The demanding tyrant-like director, obsessed with every tiny detail, would visit the composer at his home frequently while working on a project, and they would both tirelessly go through every tiny element, as long as it took for everything to click. It was something that would be both very rewarding for Wojciech, yet terribly annoying as well. Roman usually wouldn’t spot his movies too heavily, because as he himself would say, the music takes away from the realism. The only exception is The Ninth Gate, for which he ordered an hour long score.
His score for Portrait of A Lady had a very interesting genesis. Wojciech Kilar wrote the music while travelling on a plane. There was no piece of paper around, so he wrote the notes on his boarding pass and subsequently gave it to the director Jane Campion, which she apparently kept as a souvenir. Working on that dialogue-heavy film proved to be very difficult. “Maybe it will sound a bit megalomaniacal, but I’ll never learn to do one thing - write bland music, and for films you have to sometimes write non-music, and it works very well. I often notice just a few sounds in films. And that isn’t music. If they chose to emphasise more attention to music in film schools, then directors could write that themselves.”
And yet, despite all the praise and splendour, Kilar was grateful one of the opportunities has passed him by. The composer was considered for scoring The Lord of the Rings trilogy for Peter Jackson early on in the pre-production stage. The size of the production has intimidated him. “I got this offer from Jackson and agreed. There are still some formal things to talk through.” he would say back in mid-1999. “I have to admit that for me, a symphonic composer, writing music to a production this big, on the size of Star Wars, is a massive challenge, but I happily took it on myself” He then proposed to tackle just the first film in the series, having being too busy at the time, but that wasn’t agreeable to both parties and Kilar, often referring to himself as lazy, sighed with relief when the producers decided to look for someone else. Another collaboration never happened was Brian De Palma’s stylised thriller Femme Fatale from 2002.
It is worth mentioning Kilar himself didn’t hold his film work in a very high regard. Often described it as something written in one evening, just because someone asked kindly enough. As he himself put: “The first thing I’m interested in is the name of director. Second is the size of the cheque. At the very end I read the script. If those three things are agreeable then I accept the offer.” In another interview he points out: “Very often, writing music to picture is not the most noble of proceedings. It recalls putting a thick layer of lipstick and face powder, to cover up the imperfections” In yet another quote: “A concert, symphony or mass are more important for me than writing film music. It’s a matter of hierarchy. Film is a pleasant thing. Thanks to it, I’ve seen a large part of the world, live a bit better, drive better cars, but I could do it without such luxuries.”
And yet, thanks to that medium, Kilar was able to indulge himself in his own private hobby - fast cars. Also, he used to be a chain smoker. Although, according to the man himself, both of those things he cut back on in the latter years of his life. “I’ve already punished myself for playing around with cars by selling my luxurious Mercedes. I drive a smaller Mercedes now, the one nobody pays attention to. As for the smoking… I now smoke very rarely, but can’t quit. It’s a fault of one professor, who took care of me after my heart attack in Los Angeles in a hospital for Hollywood stars. While checking out, I asked: What do I do? A lot of movement, a lot of walking, he said. Eat sensibly and save yourself. And cigarettes? - I asked. If you are to stress out, then you better smoke.”
He didn't used to trust his inspiration: “I don’t like it, but the older I am, the more I think something like this exists - you either have an idea, or you don’t . I always say there are composers who write all the time, but I tend to write only the best things, by my own standards. The other (pieces) are a waste of time, the world is so beautiful after all”. In another quote he explains what inspiration means to him: “For me inspiration is that someone wants my music. It’s doubtful that I ever wrote a piece not ordered by anyone. And if I ever did, it wasn’t very good.”
For all the seemingly cynical quotes and attitudes Kilar might have presented over the years in numerous interviews, he was actually a very humble and down-to-earth man. “It might sound like a flattery, but I sometimes feel guilty when I see all the people who work really hard, risking their lives: miners, soldiers, firemen, doctors, who open up human bodies. These are the responsible jobs, we are just playing around with sounds, words and film stock”
What kind of musical legacy would he like to leave behind then?
“All pieces by Mozart are great, there is no bad one by Beethoven, Bach. However, in modern music I notice there are one, two, three pieces of one composer and that is already considered to be a great fortune. It would have been a true blessing if I could leave one or two pieces. At least five minutes of music, that would be a great success”.
Note: The quotes used were translated directly from Polish, and have been modified slightly for greater reading clarity.