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‘The Pianist’ Composer Wojciech Kilar Dies at 81

Movie scores included Francis Ford Coppola's 'Bram Stoker's Dracula'

Wojciech Kilar, a Polish pianist and composer of classical music and scores for many films, including Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning “The Pianist” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” died Sunday. He was 81.

The composer died in his hometown of Katowice, southern Poland, following a long illness, according to Jerzy Kornowicz, head of the Association of Polish Composers.

“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 forever,” said Kornowicz.

Polish film director Kazimierz Kutz said working with the composer “was pure pleasure. He would come, see my movie and a month later he would bring extremely good music that was always beyond my expectations.”

Polish conductor Antoni Wit praised Kilar’s generosity, saying he “liked to share whatever he had with others.”

A modest man who often avoided public attention, Kilar’s main love was composing symphonies and concertos, and he always put that above movies, even though he wrote the scores of dozens of films. He drew inspiration from Polish folk music and religious prayers and hymns, which he had learned in Latin as an altar boy.

But it was film music, especially for Coppola’s 1992 erotic horror movie, that brought this prolific vanguard composer to the world’s attention and commissions from other celebrity directors, including Jane Campion and her “Portrait of a Lady.”

Kilar once said the three criteria that made him write film music were, in this order: the name of the director, the salary and the script.

In a 2007 interview with PLUS, a journal about Polish-American affairs, he recalled asking Coppola in Los Angeles what kind of music he was expecting and the director replied: “I did my part. You are the composer. Do what you want.”

Kilar’s dedication to composing primarily for the concert halls even led him to lose a commission to write the score for Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. “In a movie, music is just one of the many elements,” Kilar once said. “Serious music, which I compose, is signed with my name only, and I get real pleasure from that.”

But in 2012, while receiving an honorary doctorate in Poland, he admitted that he never felt sure of the quality of the works he created until musicians and audiences gave their verdict.

Kilar wrote music for more than 130 movies in Poland and abroad, but “Dracula” won him the Best Score Composer award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in 1992.

His dense, broad and heart-swelling music is very evocative and seems destined to illustrate movies. Richly instrumented, it uses repetition of a simple melody, making it sound like romantic classical music. His trademark sounds involve basses and cellos.

Classical music exercises bored Kilar when he was learning to play the piano as a child. Only when he got to know contemporary music by Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Karol Szymanowski did he find his passion in life.

In the 1950s he tried composition in a neoclassicist style, in vogue at that time. After studying in Paris, he became one of Poland’s three leading vanguard composers in the 1960s. The other two were also giants: Krzysztof Penderecki and Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki, who died in 2010. They experimented with sound quality, serialism and the 12-tone techniques.

Kilar’s best known works from the time are the jazzy “Riff62”; “Diphtongos,” a composition for a choir with orchestra; and a minimalist “Upstairs-Downstairs” for two children’s choirs and an orchestra.

A turning point came in 1974 with “Krzesany,” a symphonic poem for an orchestra, inspired by highlander music of the Tatra mountains region of southern Poland. From then on, Kilar drew inspiration for his classical music from Polish tradition and Catholic church music.

Most of his works were written for symphony orchestras — often with a solo voice, or instrument or choir — and range from symphonies and concertos to religious choral pieces such as the powerful “Exodus” of 1981, “Angelus” in 1984, and the “Magnificat,” written in 2006.

Kilar was born on July 17, 1932, in Lviv, a former Polish city now in Ukraine, to a doctor and an actress. The family moved to Rzeszow in southeastern Poland, then to Katowice in the south, where Kilar continued the musical education that he had started in Rzeszow.

He studied piano, music theory and composition in Rzeszow, Krakow and Katowice before graduating in 1955 with top honors from the State Music Academy in Katowice.

He made Katowice — the heart of Poland’s industrial and coal mining region — his home, finding charm and peace in the area and its people.

A well-known anecdote says that when Coppola asked the composer what it took to write music like his, Kilar cryptically replied: “You need to live in Katowice.” He was known to also consider Katowice a place of hard work, where toil and effort are respected.

At a 2006 meeting with his music fans, Kilar said he was happiest “at home, in silence, with my loved ones, with my cat.” But he also said it was fantastic to conduct a symphony orchestra and see “violinists bent over their instruments, the gold of the brass, the drums on the other side.”

In 2003 the British Academy of Film and Television Arts gave the composer an award for his score for “The Pianist.” Kilar also wrote music for Polanski’s “The Ninth Gate.” In Poland, he was known for working with three influential Polish film directors: Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Krzysztof Zanussi.

Kilar told the PLUS journal he 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.”

His wife of over 40 years, Barbara, died in 2007. They had no children.

Kilar will be buried in Katowice on Saturday in a ceremony starting with a Mass at the Arch Cathedral of Christ the King.

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