He had been very successful both in Poland and abroad. He was the creator of music for over 130 films. In 1999, the Opole University granted him an honorary doctorate.
He was born on the 17th of July 1932 in Lviv. He began his music education learning to play the piano in the State Secondary Music School in Rzeszów. He was a student at the State Secondary Music School in Krakow. He finished his secondary education in 1950 in Katowice, where he began his studies at the State College of Music. As a holder of a French government grant, he studied under Nadia Boulanger in Paris. In 1955, he received his diploma, graduating with honors.
Before 1974, when he composed his most famous piece – the Krzesany symphonic poem – Kilar was regarded as a leading representative of Polish avant-garde music. His oeuvre included Riff 62 (1962), Generique (1963) and Diphtongos (1964). After that came a fascination with a different kind of avant-garde – minimal music, which resulted in two pieces: Upstairs-Downstairs (1971) and Przygrywka i kolęda (A Prelude and a Christmas Carol, 1972). Some more followed: Siwa Mgła (Hoary Fog) for baritone and orchestra (1979), Exodus (1979-1981), Angelus for a soprano, a mixed choir and a symphony orchestra (1982-1984) and Orawa for a chamber orchestra (1986).
His love affair with film began in 1958, when he wrote music for Brzozowska’s Narciarze (Skiers). He collaborated with directors such as: Andrzej Wajda (Ziemia obiecana [The Promised Land] 1974, Pan Tadeusz 1999), Kazimierz Kutz (Nikt nie woła [Nobody's Calling] 1960, Sól ziemi czarnej [Salt of the Black Earth] 1969, Perła w koronie [Pearl in the Crown] 1971, Śmierć jak kromka chleba [Death as a Slice of Bread] 1994), Stanisław Różewicz (Westerplatte 1967, Samotność we dwoje [Loneliness for Two] 1968), Wojciech Has (Lalka [The Doll] 1968), Tadeusz Konwicki (Salto 1965), Marek Piwowski (Rejs [The Cruise] 1970), Krzysztof Kieślowski (Przypadek [Blind Chance] 1981) and Roman Polański (The Ninth Gate 1999, The Pianist 2002). The Pan Tadeusz (1999) soundtrack album was honoured with a Platinum Disc Record for 20,000 sold copies. Beginning with Struktura kryształu (The Structure of Crystal, 1969), Wojciech Kilar composed music for nearly all of Krzysztof Zanussi’s films.
In 1992, Wojciech Kilar came to Hollywood. This is when Francis Ford Coppola offered him the task of composing music for Dracula. The score was a great success, and the composed received the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers ASCAP Award in 1992 in Los Angeles, and the Best Score Composer award for a 1992 Horror Film in San Francisco.
In 1995, he wrote music for Roman Polański’s film Death and the Maiden, starring Sigourney Weaver, and a year later, he composed the score for Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady. In 1999, he collaborated with Roman Polański again, creating music for The Ninth Gate horror film. Kilar’s music can also be heard in movies such as: The Truman Show and City of Angels.
Wojciech Kilar had always claimed that film music is not the most important to him. For various reasons, he rejected many offers. In 1999, he received an offer to compose music for The Lord of the Rings. He initially accepted it enthusiastically and took up the task, but after realizing what an enormous amount of work it would involve, he resigned. He agreed to write music only for the first part of the saga – this, however, was not accepted by the producers.