Wojciech Kilar dies at 81; Polish pianist and composer

Wojciech Kilar, a Polish pianist and composer of classical music and scores for more than 130 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, after a long illness, according to Jerzy Kornowicz, head of the Assn. of Polish Composers.

A modest man who often avoided public attention, Kilar's main love was composing symphonies and concertos. He drew inspiration from Polish folk music and religious prayers and hymns, which he had learned in Latin as an altar boy.

But he was best known for film music and drew international attention with Coppola's 1992 erotic horror movie.

Kilar's "Dracula" score was "ominous, frequently chilling, but always melodic and, at times, yearningly romantic," wrote Anne Billson, a film critic for the Telegraph in London. "It provided emotional depth … and tingled the spine where the rest of the film failed to do so."

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 replying: "I did my part. You are the composer. Do what you want."

In 1996, he wrote the score for director Jane Campion's film adaptation of the Henry James novel, "The Portrait of a Lady."

Richly instrumented, his music is dense, broad and heart-swelling, often making repeated use of a simple melody. His trademark sounds involve basses and cellos.

Born July 17, 1932, in Lviv, a former Polish city now in Ukraine, Kilar was the son of a doctor and an actress. The family eventually moved to Katowice, where Kilar graduated from the State Music Academy in 1955.

After studying in Paris, he became one of Poland's leading composers in the 1960s. His best-known works from the time are the jazzy "Riff62"; "Diphtongos," a composition for a choir with orchestra; and the minimalist "Upstairs-Downstairs" for two children's choirs and an orchestra.

A turning point came in 1974 with "Krzesany," a piece inspired by music of the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland. From then on, Kilar drew inspiration for his classical music from Polish tradition and Roman 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.

He made Katowice, the heart of Poland's industrial and coal mining region, his home. Reportedly asked by Coppola what it took to write music like his, the composer cryptically replied: "You need to live in Katowice."

At a 2006 meeting with his fans, Kilar said he was happiest "at home, in silence, with my loved ones, with my cat."

In addition to "The Pianist," his work for Polanski included music for "The Ninth Gate" and "Death and the Maiden."

In Poland, he was known for working with three influential film directors: Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Zanussi.

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

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