• Kilar at 80

Wojciech Kilar (photo from the 1970s?)

Wojciech Kilar is one of the stayers of Polish music.  He turns 80 today. Of his fellow internationally-known composers, only Witold Lutosławski (1913-94) has reached the same milestone.  Two months ago, the Polish president awarded Kilar the country’s highest honour, the Order of the White Eagle.  I hope that this is not an omen of mortality, as its conferral on both Lutosławski and Henryk Mikołaj Górecki took place when they were on their deathbeds.  Equally, I’m not anxious to mark this event with anything like an obitual ode, and I’ll draw a polite veil over Kilar’s concert music of the last twenty years or so.

Although many other Polish composers have written film music, Kilar is undoubtedly the best-known, with well over 100 film scores to his credit (his first was in 1958).  He’s worked on a wealth of Polish films, such as Kazimierz Kutz’s Sół ziemi czarnej (Salt of the Black Earth, 1969), Krzysztof Zanussi’s Struktura kryształu (The Structure of Crystal, also 1969), Andrzej Wajda’s Ziemia obiecana (The Promised Land, 1974) and Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Przypadek (Blind Chance, 1981).  Kilar became internationally famous for his work on English-language films, such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady (1996).  He has a gift for a catchy melodic hook, like that which haunts his score for Roman Polański’s The Pianist (2002).

Kilar’s concert music follows a similar trajectory to those of his Polish contemporaries, at least from the 1950s through to the 1980s.  It’s not often realised, however, that he was known as an up-and-coming talent several years earlier than Krzysztof Penderecki and Górecki, who were born just a year later.  His music of the early-mid 1950s unsurprisingly shows a neoclassical bent (Horn Sonata, 1954; Little Overture, 1955).  After his Ode in memoriam Béla Bartók (1957), he seems to have taken a compositional breather, while other composers were sorting out their responses to the Western avant-garde in public at the new, ground-breaking ‘Warsaw Autumn’ festivals.  Kilar stormed back in the fourth, fifth and sixth festivals in 1961-63 with Herbsttag (1960), Riff ’62 (1962) and Générique (1963).

Although they challenged the audiences, these scores were quite different to those of Penderecki and Górecki. Kilar’s music was more febrile, less obviously unified, less closely wedded to the sonoristic movement of his contemporaries.  It was lighter than Górecki’s equivalent pieces (Elementi, 1962) and less homogenous than Penderecki’s, as the jazz and rhythmic components in Riff ’62 shows.  For a while in the late 1960s, Kilar seemed close to Górecki (they both lived and worked in Katowice) as they moved towards a more consonant idiom, but their paths started to diverge.

I once characterised their differences as Kilar preferring the major third while Górecki went for the minor.  This pat observation has a certain element of truth, in the sense that Kilar developed a sweeter compositional tooth than Górecki.  This is borne out when comparing two works from 1972: Kilar’s Przygrywka i kolęda (Prelude and Christmas Carol) and Górecki’s Second Symphony ‘Copernican’.  Kilar was the first (after Zygmunt Krauze’s Folk Music, 1972) to plunge wholeheartedly into the world of folk culture, and in 1974 he came up with a stunner that remains one of his most-performed orchestral works.


Krzesany (Sparking Dance) is a vigorous re-imagining of one of the Polish highlanders’ most characteristic dances. It’s hard to realise 40 years on how refreshing and jovial this piece was, bringing together as it did elements of sonorism and national music.  Polish folk music, which twenty years earlier had been somewhat tainted among composers for its role in promoting communist socialist realism, had been released by Krauze and Kilar.  For my money, Kilar’s Orawa for strings (1986) is a more successful and if less obviously colourful example, and I remember having great fun when conducting it many years ago, though the players had to work harder than I did!  There are two intervening symphonic poems which also draw inspiration from the Podhale region north of the Tatra Mountains – Kościelec 1909 (1976; the title refers to the mountain where the composer Mieczysław Karłowicz met his death by avalanche) and Siwa mgła (Grey Mist, 1979).

With Bogurodzica (Mother of God, 1975), Kilar got into his stride with religious contextualisation or historical memorialisation.  Subsequent pieces include Victoria (written for Pope John Paul II’s second visit to Poland), Angelus (1984), Piano Concerto (1997), Missa pro pace (2000) and September Symphony (2003, his response to 9/11).

The most notorious of these pieces was Exodus (1981).  Krzesany had created a sensation at the 1974 ‘Warsaw Autumn’, and Exodus did likewise at the 1981 festival. This was at the height of the Solidarity movement and just three months before the imposition of martial law, so Kilar’s reference to the Old Testament story accumulated contemporary symbolism.  Here, the ‘major third’ aspect of Kilar’s aesthetic came to the fore, allied to a Boléro-like structure.  And there’s no doubting the filmic aspect too – it’s as if Kilar was writing for  a Hollywood biblical epic.  I was present at the premiere in the Philharmonic Hall in Warsaw.  The audience became very excitable, provoked by the repetitious refrain (some even joining in), and as Exodus reached its final choral-orchestral flourish, someone next to me let out a loud ‘Mehhhhhhh’.

Here’s a video put up yesterday by the Polish Music Publishers, PWM Edition.  It’s a live performance of BogurodzicaAngelus (starting at 11’08”) and Exodus (starting shortly after 31’55”).  (Warning: there are virtually no gaps between pieces in this tightly edited video.)   The concert was given on 1 May this year in the presence of the composer at the monastery church at Częstochowa, where Kilar has long had a private retreat.

Whether by design or in naivety, Kilar’s music of the past 40 years has divided audiences as violently as the parting of the Red Sea.  In his pared-down, transparent pieces since 2000, some hail him as having a mystical link – through his music – to the Almighty.  Others see an updated version of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes.  But no-one can accuse him of not following his compositional instincts, and his music continues to touch audiences and film-goers across the world.

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