“I think, that’s how I see myself, that I’m a joyful-sad man, like that very banal chord used since the impressionists’ times – minor with an added minor seventh,” said Wojciech Kilar in autumn 1996. Using musical terminology, he pointed not only to his personality traits, but also to his compositional preferences whereby modesty of means employed translated into powerful impact. As Kilar’s oeuvre demonstrates, the composer quite consistently pursued this goal, though the path he followed – comprising autonomous and film music that complemented each other – was not without some meanders.

Kilar was born on 17 July 1932 in Lviv (then part of Poland, today in Ukraine) as son of a highly regarded gynaecologist and an actress. He was brought up in an environment in which interest in art (especially theater) was part and parcel of everyday life, and musical education seemed a natural element of the upbringing of any young man. Kilar began piano lessons at the age of six, but he was not very eager to do obligatory keyboard exercises and persevered only thanks to his mother’s support. Nothing suggested that music would become an important part of his life until – after leaving his home city in 1944 – he moved with his mother to Rzeszów in southern Poland. The future composer met there a teacher of great charisma and intuition – Kazimierz Mirski. Mirski showed to the young pupil piano repertoire of the 20th century, which turned out to be so fascinating that it prompted the future composer of Orawa to try his hand at composing (his first surviving piece is Mazurka in E minor from 1946). Kilar continued systematic composition studies, without neglecting his piano education, first in Kraków during private lessons with Artur Malawski, then in a secondary school in Katowice, and finally in that city’s State School of Music under Bolesław Woytowicz.


Katowice turned out to be Kilar’s safe haven, his own place on earth. There he met his future wife, Barbara Pomianowska (“This true act of Divine Providence was like a strike of thunder for me, like in The Godfather,” Kilar later recalled) and there he began his carrier as a composer in earnest. While still a student he wrote several chamber works (including Sonatina for flute and piano in 1951, and in 1952 Quintet for wind instruments),  displaying a fine sense of drama of the form, which would never leave him and become a trademark of his individual style. He also wrote Little Overture for orchestra (1955) and two now-forgotten symphonies. The most important piece from that period, called neoclassical, is Oda Béla Bartók in memoriam from 1957, which won the Lili Boulanger Prize. On one hand, it provides a striking end to the first stage of his development as an artist; on the other, an opening to new ideas.


In 1957, Kilar took part in the International Summer Course for New Music in Darmstadt, West Germany. The avant-garde tendencies promoted there, primarily dodecaphony and serialism, did not really convince him, and although they did leave a permanent mark on his oeuvre, from the cantata Herbsttag (1960) to Springfield Sonnet (1965), years later the composer regarded them as his “great illusion.” In 1959, looking for new inspirations, he went to Paris thanks to a French government-funded scholarship, to study with Nadia Boulanger. He actively participated in the musical life of the French capital and thus explored jazz, the intuitive and spontaneous nature of which set new aesthetic goals for him. From then on, making the very fact of creation central, as well as moderation in the use of means and expression, he wanted to write music that would be able to intrigue the listener.


In short order, he set about achieving his new goals – a piece entitled Riff 62 presented in 1962 at the Warsaw Autumn Festival was enthusiastically received by the audience, though critics being were rather reserved in their opinions. The premiere of this work symbolically begins the second stage in Kilar’s life as a composer, described as his sonoristic or avant-garde phase. At that time Kilar, like Krzysztof Penderecki and Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, his juniors by a year, was writing pieces which would make the so-called Polish school of composition famous throughout the world. Yet in Générique (1963), Diphthongos (1964) and Springfield Sonnet he added a truly individual touch to the sonoristic style. Preferring a purely sonic side of music and using a range of means to shape it, he proposed his own suggestive narrative and expression, hugely capable of winning listeners over. Before long, however, he felt that sonorism was quickly running out of ideas and decided to find other solutions. Consequently, his music gradually evolved towards an ever greater simplicity of form and economy of means of expression. This strand of his oeuvre is represented by works like Solenne (1967), Training 68 (1968), Upstairs-Downstairs (1971) and Prelude and Carol (1972).


The composer’s conviction that “truly valuable works are only those that performers want to play and the public wants to hear” came true fully in subsequent years, with works that to this day constitute a canon of concert “sure bets” and begin a period in Kilar’s oeuvre referred to as postmodernist. Written in 1974, Krzesany began a strand leading through Kościelec 1909 (1976) and Hoary Fog (1979) to Orawa (1986), a strand marked by creative transformations of music from the Podhale region in the Polish highlands. Music critics put Kilar’s works at least on a par with Karol Szymanowski’s achievements on one hand, but on the other they reprimanded him for his “naivety” in interpreting folklore. The relative modest number of “Tatra Mountain–themed” works in Kilar’s oeuvre may be misleading, because echoes of highlander folklore can be found in many other pieces from his last period, sometimes in very surprising contexts (for example, in referring to a fragment of Magnificat (2006), Kilar said “Because it’s a young shepherd singing... in Latin”).


Another consequence of the composer’s creative turn in the mid 1970s was his exploration of vocal-instrumental music in its religious variety, a genre hitherto virtually alien to him. With Bogurodzica (1975), Exodus (1981), Victoria (1983), Angelus (1984), Missa pro pace (2000) and works written in the 21st century including Magnificat (2006), Veni Creator (2008) and Te Deum (2008), the composer formed a strand of his music that reached the highest level of religious sublimation in his last works written for a cappella choir: Lament (2003), Paschalis Hymn (2008) and A Prayer to Saint Therese (2013). These works are also linked to Kilar’s deep religiosity. Its strength grew during the period of martial law in Poland (1981–1983), when Kilar began to frequently visit the Marian shrine at Jasna Góra, Częstochowa. After Krzesany and Bogurodzica, the composer’s oeuvre also featured symphonic music (September Symphony, 2003; Sinfonia de motu, 2005; “Advent” Symphony, 2007), two piano concertos (1997 and 2011) as well as smaller orchestral pieces like Choral Prelude (1988), Ricordanza (2005) and Solemn Overture (2010). Kilar’s final period was marked by minimalism. The artist felt a close affinity with this type of aesthetics, not only on account of his cherished principle of minimizing the means and maximizing expression, but also because of its connotation with repetitiveness, so characteristic of prayer.


Film music, which Kilar began to write in 1958 (he made his debut with the soundtrack to The Skiers directed by Natalia Brzozowska) alongside his autonomous music, occupies a separate and quantitatively dominant position in his oeuvre. This extraordinarily rich body of work encompasses results of collaboration with great Polish and foreign directors – music to feature films, television series, animated films and documentaries. This music, appreciated both for its intrinsic charm (beautiful melodies, suggestive and varied instrumentation) and for its superb integration with each film’s images, subject matter and atmosphere, brought the composer international fame. Yet Kilar regarded this part of his oeuvre as less important, as having primarily a utilitarian value, although it was a source of huge satisfaction for him – including strictly artistic satisfaction. Each of his film scores is marked by an intention for a given theme to be important for purely musical reasons; he was decidedly against attributing to his symphonic works any “film-like” qualities. He even stressed that the impact of one type of his music on the other went in the opposite direction, with symphonic music influencing his film music. Indeed, the latter regularly featured glissandos and tremolos as well as other sophisticated sound effects, which from the mid 1970s were virtually absent from his autonomous works. We could say that in his film music Kilar does justice to the criticized avant-garde, using and adapting its tools to the needs of specific film contexts. On the other hand, he found pleasure that was quite simply “hedonistic” in composing waltzes, polkas, marches and illustrations of sleigh-ride scenes.


The variety of Kilar’s film music undoubtedly equals the wealth of his autonomous works. In both areas, he was guided by the same principle: “To be the best Kilar possible.” Regardless of whether he was composing a symphony or a film theme, he wrote pieces stemming from a profound inner need, aware at the same time that music was a message to be performed, a message for the listener. Consequently, he took great care particularly of the structure, the general shape, which for him was a measure of any composer’s skill. To the programs of concerts featuring suites based on his famous film themes he would add autonomous pieces, and was pleased to note that thanks to the “Tenth Muse” listeners were also attracted to his symphonic works.


There is no doubt that knowing just one creative side of the composer, who died on 29 December 2013, makes the picture of his oeuvre far from complete. Only by combining these two perspectives can we fully appreciate the unique role in the history of contemporary music played by this “Silesian from Lviv.”



* All quotes come from Cieszę się darem życia. Rozmowy z Wojciechem Kilarem przeprowadzili Klaudia Podobińska i Leszek Polony [Cherishing the Gift of Life: Wojciech Kilar Talks to Klaudia Podobińska and Leszek Polony] Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, Kraków 2014.