Remembering Wojciech Kilar, Poland's Late Film-Music Giant

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Classical music suffered a terrible loss at the end of last month, when Wojciech Kilar died at the age of 81. He may not yet be a household name, but even listeners who have never heard of Kilar – let alone listened to his music – may be familiar with his style without even knowing it, thanks to his musical contributions to 130 films, including "Death and the Maiden" and "The Pianist."

His concert music had just tipped into the mainstream classical consciousness a few years before his passing, but he's been well-served by the Polish DUX label's ongoing Kilar edition, the latest of which collects three works for chorus and orchestra from the 1980s: Angelus, Exodus and Victoria.

From the opening bars of Angelus, it's obvious why Kilar's music has been so adored by film auteurs. The combination of ominous grandeur and plush atmosphere is exactly what Francis Ford Coppola's "Dracula" or Roman Polanski's "The Ninth Gate" need to link their visceral B-movie appeal to their high-art ambitions.

The liner notes draw a connection between Kilar's music in general – and particularly the relentless forward march of his Exodus – to Ravel's Boléro, and it's easy to hear the inspiration Kilar drew from that model, with the gradually building intensity of its inexorable cycles.

And that resemblance points to one of the most cinematic qualities of Kilar's concert works. Like film music, these pieces don't manifest a dramatic arc, they form the backdrop to another, absent drama.

Listening to Victoria, a short, loud, rather unsettling triumphal march, these pieces will be near irresistible to the uninitiated listener not just because of the rich excess of musical effects that Kilar throws into them, but because of absences like these. There is a hollow space waiting to be filled at the heart of these scores – a blank in the music, left for the listener to complete.

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