Varsovie #1, theme from the TV series “Napoléon et l’Europe”
Dances top the list of Kilar’s greatest hits
composed for cinema. It suffices to to start with two
famous Viennese waltzes: from Jerzy Hoffman’s The
Leper (1976) and Andrzej Wajda’s The
Promised Land (1975)
appearing frequently at wedding receptions
in Poland. Their are also their lesser relatives: little waltzes from
Stanisław Lenartowicz’s Giuseppe in
Warsaw (1964), Kazimierz Kutz’s The
Beads of One Rosary (1980) and
Krzysztof Zanussi’s In Full Gallop
(1996). Less obvious though no less
popular are the Salto
from Tadeusz Konwicki’s Jump
(1965), the tango from Janusz Majewski’s Jealousy
and Medicine (1973) and the bolero from
Roman Polański’s The Ninth Gate
(1999). There are also Polish national dances: the oberek
from Kutz’s Salt of the Black Earth
(1969), the mazurka from Andrzej Wajda’s The Revenge
(2002) and the polonaise from that director's Pan
Tadeusz (1999). Kilar’s polonaise has
superseded the earlier one by composer Michał Kleofas Ogiński, in
fact, as the standard dance during high school proms. It's worth
bearing in mind that Kilar also arranged folk-dance melodies,
contributing to the repertoire of the Śląsk Song and Dance
Ensemble, and that some of his concert pieces prove very suitable for
choreography (the composer called his Krzesany
a “choreographic poem”).
Before wondering about reasons for the great popularity of Kilar dance themes and about how they're used in films, let's reflect on the nature of dance as such. It's not just spontaneous movement under the influence of music and its formal manifestations (such as waltz, tango, foxtrot), as we read in PWM Edition’s Encyclopaedia of Music, but also an expression of culture associated with a specific group or function (including folk dance, ballroom dance, show dance). In the case of Kilar’s film music, it's worth emphasizing the context of each dance: for example, the waltz is unequivocally associated with the upper class – with a learned form requiring initiation, with elegance, fluidity and lightness. Another important aspect of dance is its regional or national character, which attributes a different region to the mazurka and another to the polonaise or the oberek.
If we start our examination of Kilar dance motifs with the waltz, it's worth comparing the theme used in Janusz Majewski’s horror film Lokis: A Manuscript of Professor Wittembach (1970) with another version of the dance appearing six years later in Jerzy Hoffman’s melodrama The Leper. In Lokis, the motif appears as salon piano music, symbolizing the aspirations of the protagonist growing up in a provincial palace. In Hoffman’s film, it accompanies the dance of the protagonists during an open-air aristocratic party; it constitutes a ritual, as it were, through which an aristocrat in love with a governess tries to elevate his beloved and make her part of his circle. However, a descending violin melody with accompaniment provided by the other string doesn't bode well for her, the eponymous “leper”, heralding the dramatic end of the romance.
In Wajda's The Promised Land, the orchestra waltz characterizes the fiancée of the protagonist at once, and symbolizes Polish manor-house tradition as well as the idyllic nature of the countryside. Apparently, the idea to compose the dance came to Kilar accidentally, as he was watching a working version of a series of scenes accompanied by a “piece” in triple metre. His composition set up Wajda’s film, bringing a rather disjointed series of scenes into a coherent whole. The right combination of the waltz and the images pertinently emphasized the inextricable link between form and tradition: when the girl and Karol’s father leave the countryside and come to the city, the waltz is heard in a more modest arrangement for mandolin and snare drum, though earlier it had boasted rich instrumentation: the melody with its characteristic rhythm of three quavers and sustained crotchet was played by first violin, flute and oboe, in turn, with celesta and harp shining in accompaniment and a woodwind quartet ornamenting the linking sections.
The waltz is one thing; the little waltz is something entirely different, as evidenced by Kilar’s pieces composed to the films by Lenartowicz, Kutz and Zanussi. It appears as street-fair music (Giuseppe in Warsaw) or nostalgic music (The Beads of One Rosary, In Full Gallop). In all these films, Kilar differentiates the nature of the little waltz using varied instrumentation: from mandolin through trumpet to piano. The dance usually accompanies homeland dreams and longings of an Italian lost in Warsaw (in Lenartowicz’s film), disappearing Silesian tradition watched by a veteran miner (in Kutz’s film), and an aunt cultivating aristocratic individualism in the Stalinist era (Zanussi). We could, therefore, say that the little waltz is a sign of being a misfit and a loner, of existing in spite of surrounding reality.
The meaning of Kilar’s regional-national dances seems fairly simple. In the prologue to Kutz's Salt of the Black Earth, a steady percussion rhythm gives rise to a lively oberek carried by clarinet or trumpet (with brass episodes). A Silesian band accompanies dancers in a venue full of conspiring insurgents – a harmonious combination of the local tradition and the fight for independence. Some musicians seem to be deliberately playing loud (for example, the trumpeter and clarinettists), perhaps in an attempt to drown out the conspirators distributing weapons among themselves, and thus to provide cover for them against German gendarmes. With his now-famous polonaise to Wajda's Pan Tadeusz, Kilar had to compete not only with his predecessors in the genre but also with the literary description in the epic poem that the film adapts, which makes this collective dance one of its key scenes. Wajda, in turn, made it a pivotal element in his film, with the music already at his disposal. A consistent crescendo harmonizes with repetitions of the melody by successive instruments (clarinet, flute, trumpet, French horns and oboe), defining the “Polish national dance” for decades to come.
Dances are also key elements in the music to Wajda's The Revenge. Though the vigorous orchestra mazurka is heard only once, at the film's beginning it sets the rhythm in truly grand style for the sleigh ride featuring the Cup-Bearer and his entourage, clearly showing who the master is. Papkin is accompanied by a grotesque polonaise for trumpet or bassoon, Klara by a minuet for strings. Both dances are based on material similar to that of the first theme, yet their meaning is less obvious. The Papkin motif, even if it does echo Pan Tadeusz, is slightly deformed and more modest, but can't we say the same about the protagonist in the Fredro play when compared to Jacek Soplica, the model nobleman in Mickiewicz’s poem and the Wajda film? The Cup-Bearer’s daughter, seems to dream of a rather different place to live than the parochial, disputatious castle, like Julia Dowgiałło does in Majewski’s Lokis – she dreams of European salons and dances... That Kilar was a master of court-dance stylization is evidenced by his music to the TV series Napoleon and Europe; one of its themes, Varsovie No. 1 (with solo flute accompanied by strings and harpsichord), sounds like a movement from a Bach orchestra suite. The composer also wrote more exotic dance music for various films. For example, in Lenartowicz's Full Steam Ahead (1966), a main motif features the cha-cha, already signalled in the opening credits, and scenes in North African ports are accompanied by characteristic drum rhythms.
To conclude, let's mention two magnificent though rather unequivocal dances by Kilar: from Majewski's Jealousy and Medicine and from Konwicki's Jump. The tango from the former doesn't appear in the film’s diegesis (though there's plenty of dance musicthere), and its use can perhaps be linked to fashions of the interwar period, in which the action of Jealousy and Medicine takes place. Unflagging strings in the accompaniment, a constant, tense striving for culmination in repeated piano chords backed by a percussion rhythm, and sustained trombone notes and even the capricious clarinet seem to characterize the femme fatale of the film in a variety of ways. Jump also features the tango, played – like the final “jump” – by a band of elderly jazzmen from the local dance hall. A mysterious stranger, played by Zbigniew Cybulski, initiates the dance on double bass then leaves the stage to show its steps to all present; double bass is joined by percussion, upright piano, mandolin and trumpet in long swelling tremolos. Written in even metre, swinging and swaying, this "jump" puts the townsfolk into a trace. But is there a dance by Kilar that can't do that?