by Sam Juliano
When a freak accident claimed the life of Polish composer and jazz pianist Krzysztof Komeda at the age of 38 in 1969, the film community lost an invaluable talent at the peak of his artistic powers and a young man was cut short well before his time. Indeed, director Roman Polanski, in the liner notes to a 1997 Komeda tribute album wrote: “Krzysztof Komeda was not only a valued professional collaborator but a close and dear friend, and it is my abiding regret that his untimely death robbed me of him in both those capacities.” Komeda developed a personal style that brought the jazz form a new prominence in a communist country that frowned on what was seen as an American creation. Komeda expanded the jazz parameters by injected a generous dose of ‘slavic lyricism’ and poetic atmosphere that eventually gained the young composer a following in his native country and abroad. One of Komeda’s most enthusiastic fans was none other than Polanski himself, who courted the fellow Pole to score his first film, Knife in the Water, after engaging the composer on his student film, after many months of attending him on the nightclub circuit. By that time the composer had received a few other offers (which he accepted) and he came through for Polanski with a low-key jazz score to serve as a counterpoint to the mounting tensions in Knife, employing saxophone and a string-bass driven sound. The mournful romanticism of the main theme is what most remember most compellingly from the score, but the music throughout is exceptionally applied. Polanski again called on Komeda for his 1963 Cul-de-Sac, allowing the composer to again write a nifty jazzy composition, with a dominant use of the moog, bongo and warbling horns. At around that time Komeda was also composing for the Danish director Henning Carlsen, contributing scores to Kattorna, People Meet and Sweet Music Fills the Heart and the director’s masterpiece, Salt (Hunger), for which a provocative chamber music design was written. Komeda’s most famous album to this day remains his landmark jazz work “Astigmatic” (1965) which is noted for it’s extraordinarily sublime coordination of piano harmonies and rhythms. Komeda also worked with Polish titan Andrzej Wajda, penning the score to Innocent Sorcerers, which exhibited the experimentation of form and dark tonalities typical of some of his earlier film music.
Almost as a tune up for what was ultimately to be the score he is most universally known for, Komeda answered the call again for Polanski in 1966 for The Fearless Vampire Killers, providing about thirty minutes of lush, unforgettable, baroque textured music that made indelible use of harpsichord, drums and classic guitar, in an intentionally over-dramatic composition that may well be the most unforgettable component in a film now seen as a cult classic. It also represented a change of pace for the composer, who created a lively score dominated by orchestral and choral elements. It is for this score and for the one that is featured in this essay that Komeda seems to have provided the most compelling evidence that his own convictions on long-term value of film music may well have been in error. Said Komeda in a mid 60’s interview “I judge film music only in conjunction with the picture it was created for. I believe that one cannot say that a movie score is good, without taking into account its usefulness in relation to the picture,” The irony of Komeda’s assertion is that his own scores almost without exception have either matched or acceded the films they provide aural accompaniment for, and are models of stand-alone listening.
One of Komeda’s final scores is the one that listeners are most familiar with, appearing as it does for one of director Polanski’s most popular features to this day, the 1968 horror film Rosemary’s Baby. It’s arguably his magnum opus, and the score that best represents a wedding of horror and jazz-influenced elements, that later influenced composers like Jerry Goldsmith and echoed in some ways the early avant-garde work of the artist who is widely considered “the greatest living Polish composer, Krzysztof Penderecki. Indeed in The Shining Stanley Kubrick effectively borrowed six pieces from Penderecki to provide a sinister, eerie and dissonant sound, which can also be found thoughout Komeda’s Rosemary’s Baby score. Opined Polanski upon the film’s release: “Rosemary’s Baby owes much to Komeda’s empathy and creative imagination” and “Not for the first time a film of mine had derived an added dimension from Komeda’s wonderfully imaginative music.”
At the center of the film’s score is a magnificent and haunting lullaby with seductive lyrical power that is wisely used throughout the film in various orchestrations and instrumental variations. To the surprise of Polanski and the producers, Mia Farrow herself provided the voice to carry the wordless infectious lullaby that is played over the opening credits, and it is reprised with a less eerie and more upbeat arrangement and quickened tempo (CD Track 17) for the scene when Rosemary’s increasing anxiety is dashed by the joyful news of her pregnancy. The strings and woodwinds take full control in this variation, trumping the effect of the dissonant elements. Later, the lullaby is heard again on Track 21 with a more pensive tone, at a sequence near the crib when Rosemary is reassured by her baby’s movement. During this sequence the musical accompaniment is widened with a more menacing connotation. The theme again appears briefly in Track 24, during Rosemary’s visit to Dr. Hill, as the piano carries the rocking melody as she dreams of a benign childbirth. The darkest and most devilish incorporation of the lullaby ushers in one of the score and CD’s most extraordinary tracks, No. 21, when the theme is carried by screeching synthesizer as Rosemary escapes, only to be captured and sedated. The theme associated by the witch’s coven follows in threatening manner with the trumpets and intensified strings. In the CD’s superlative liner notes, freelance writer John Takis mentions that the trumpet solos in the score were performed by jazz musician Don Ellis, who later became a notable film composer in his own right with credits that include The French Connection and The Seven-Ups. The arresting voice of Mia Farrow is finally heard in main title mode on Track 29 at the conclusion when Rosemary stands at the side of her young son. Enticingly enough, the most captivating incarnation of the lullaby waltz on the CD album is offered up as a bonus (Track 36) which is taken from the “B” side of the Dot Records single, and which features a beautifully poignant transcription of the theme on harmonica by Tommy Morgan. Decades after the success of the film, this unforgettable lullaby has rightly become one of the most famous and beloved film codas of all time.
While the main theme provides the melodic hook that encapsulates the score and brings it a human dimension, Komeda’s music throughout is jazz-infused, though the mounting tension is conveyed with minimalist flourishes that suggest the sinister motives of the film’s characters and the sense of foreboding that reaches it’s all-telling climax. The sections chaptered on the CD as “Path to Pit of Evil” parts 1 and 2 show the synthesizer and strings consorting threatening harmony as Rosemary discovers the secret doorway and later wields the kitchen knife while coming upon the satanic celebration of her child’s birth. During the earlier ‘hallucinatory rape’ segment (Track 16) when Rosemary experiences a demonic assault, the dissonance reaches it’s most urgent incantation while demonic male and female voices chant while Rosemary defends herself. The voices are heard again (Track 22) while the flute and moaning provide the aural underpinning when Rosemary finds out the dark secret about Roman after examining a book titled All of Them Witches, and initially (Track 3) when voices are heard in the neighboring apartment of the elderly couple who are most interested in Rosemary and Guy.
The La La Land Records CD can certainly be seen as definitive, as it includes the full thirty-one minute score Komeda wrote for the film (Tracks 13-29)the original soundtrack album (1-12), two bonus tracks and five tracks of “source” music. Among the latter grouping is one of the album’s most priceless additions, titled “Moment Musical” which is an expansion of the music that underscores two earlier relaxation interludes in the film, one when Rosemary attempts to peacefully read a book. In an encore “Moment Musical Jazz” on Track 34 the infectious melody is carried by piano instead of tenor saxophone. Also gleefully included is the complete rock tune that appeared in part on Track 20, titled ‘Moment in Time’ written by Komeda and Hal Blair, and arranged and conducted by Jimmie Haskell. The 36 track CD is attractively packaged with a remarkably comprehensive 24 page booklet that examines the film, Polanski’s early period, Komeda’s full career and a track-by-track analysis by the aforementioned John Takis. The album was co-produced by Film Score Monthly wunderkind Lucas Kendall, and is an essential acquisition for anyone who loves Komeda’s music, horror cinema or the stunning sound that can be negotiated on a CD from master tapes. Above all this is one of the great film scores, and it makes a passionate plea for a full re-assessment of one of the form’s tragic figures, a singular talent who spoke a unique musical language.
Note: The La La Land CD of Krzysztof Komeda’s score to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, which streeted three weeks ago, is a limited edition of 3,000 units. Much of Komeda’s other film work is available in a box set assembled by the composer’s widow, Zofia on Amazon, as is his seminal (and essential) jazz album, Astigmatic.