On Kazimierz Serocki's film music

 

Kazimierz Serocki composed music to fourteen feature-length films and about thirty short films (documentaries and animated films). He was, thus, very much involved in writing for film. His soundtracks come from 19491974, though most were composed in the late 1940s, early 1950s and first half of the 1960s. After 1965 the composer stopped writing film music, only to return in a spectacular manner to this activity in 1974, in Jerzy Hoffman’s The Deluge.

Serocki first came into contact with the film industry during his studies in Łódź. In 1946 he made his film debut there, writing music to a short film entitled Gymnastics for All. From that moment on he worked regularly with film artists, including leading directors of the period: Wanda Jakubowska, Stanisław Różewicz, Tadeusz Makarczyński and Jerzy Hoffman. The most famous and most productive creative partnership he formed was that with Aleksander Ford, with whom he worked on five films, including the biggest box office hit in the history of Polish cinema – The Teutonic Knights. Although there is no doubt that film music constituted a minor strand in Serocki’s oeuvre, the name of the composer is today, paradoxically, associated most strongly with soundtracks, especially those to films based on Henryk Sienkiewicz’s historical novels: The Teutonic Knights and The Deluge.

Kazimierz Serocki’s film music has never been the focus of any particular interest of scholars studying his oeuvre. Karol Bulanda suspects that the reasons behind this lie in the economy of expression and technical means, lack of experimentation and even certain “predictability” of this music, which was limited to “well-tried musical models placed in the context of images, obviously stemming from impressions generated by the plot and the visual vividness of the film”. At the same time Bulanda stresses that Serocki’s film music is “of high artistic value”, “unconventional”, characterised by “beauty and technical professionalism” as well as “audiovisual appropriateness and emotional emphasis”. So what is this music really like?

Serocki began his career as a film composer in a period dominated by the normative aesthetics of socialist realism, in which it was not easy to escape from dogmas and maintain artistic independence. According to official statistics, between 1949 and 1955, 34 feature-length films were made in Poland; 31 of them conformed to the socialist realist formula. They were all quite similar in terms of style and subject, contained didactic messages and created specific types of protagonists: good, bad or ones going through a process of ideological maturing. They included, for example, Jasiek, the protagonist of Devil’s Ravine directed by Tadeusz Kański and Aldo Vergano (1950)[1], the first feature-length film to which Serocki wrote music. He used in it folklore from the Podhale region, but also drew extensively on neo-romantic symphonism, impressionism and broadly defined neo-classical aesthetics. The score had a characteristic leitmotif, based on the modal scale (major scale with a raised 4th and a lowered 7th step), as well as stylised elements of popular music and music from the Podhale region. Serocki did not shy away either from strong emotionalism – e.g. in the scene of the battle with the smugglers – as a result of which his music fits in perfectly with the film’s subject and scenery.

The issue of the music fitting in with the image and the question of mutual relations between these elements was the main theme in Serocki’s reflection on film music. The University of Warsaw Library has a draft of his paper devoted to the role of music in film. It is not dated, but we may assume it was to be delivered during the Film-Makers Congress in Wisła in November 1949, during which – just as it happened three months earlier in Łagów with regard to music – socialist realism was proclaimed to be the mandatory creative method to be used. In the paper Serocki presents a number of very interesting observations, pointing at the beginning to two types of using music in film: 1) “as the dominant factor making music a prominent if not primary factor in shaping the plot; I’m thinking here of musical films par excellence [...]” and 2) “as the so-called musical illustration in non-musical films [...]”.

Text on film music

When trying to answer the question “What is the role of music in film?”, he wrote:

To put it in the most general terms, music in film should emphasise evocatively, enhance emotionally the images we see. In the first category, I believe, there should be one dominant musical motif, usually a song, especially in the case of comedies or other films in which the script makes it possible. Music plays a major role here, it mobilises the viewers and through its huge audience plays a considerable role in shaping, raising their musical level. In the second category, music is obviously less important; it is there to emphasise some moods and emotionally enhance the film content. As music in film is, naturally, programmatic and without a form that we can seen in symphonic and stage music, here, too, whenever possible, one should strive for recurring motifs, be it in a vocal or instrumental form, as this is often the only form possible when music is composed for a film, the form that can facilitate the understanding of the content expressed through music and, thus, contributes to the fulfilment of its task in the film.

Serocki thus presents a kind of recipe for good film music, stressing at the same time that not all composers realise its specific requirements, which brings with it some dangers. First,

a disregard for the fact that the music must ‘be in tune’ with the image, must be synchronised with the image and adapted for its purpose, and it cannot exist in itself, because when it does, it often interferes with our watching the image.

Second,

naturalism involving the easiest, schematic treatment of musical illustration by treating music in film naturalistically and not emotionally.

In addition, he complains about music not being treated equally: the director is the most important figure and usually does not appreciate the work of the composer, who gets too little time to write the music.

All these observations clearly testify not only to his ideological concern for “realist socialist film” – which Serocki in any case clearly declares at the end of his paper – but also to his serious approach to his own work, which brought with it artistic challenges and a need for aesthetic satisfaction. That is why the conclusions-postulates formulated by the composer are so important “for the collaboration with the composer in a film to be as effective as possible and bring the greatest possible benefit to the entire film itself”. The postulates include:

  • According to music a role equal to that of the script and directing, and, consequently, giving the composer a bigger say in deciding matters concerning musical illustration in the film as well as having the script author and the director work with the composer from the very beginning and not towards the end of filming.
  • Increasing the amount of music in film, not turning it into a filler (especially in non-musical films) [...]. I hope this will not be construed as a desire to remove naturalistic effects, because that is not what I meant, it is simply about increasing the contribution of music as a means of emotional enhancement in film.
  • Making sure future directors are prepared musically in film schools. [...] In my opinion, the schools should hold permanent discussions about the musical side of films, in accordance with musical-film rules, on the basis of films with interesting musical illustrations being shown under the guidance of a relevant expert. In this way in the future we will be able to avoid [...] anti-musicality in film directors.
  • [...] solving organisational and technical issues (time to write the score, the question of recordings etc.) [...]

Serocki managed to implement some of these ideas in his own projects, especially those on which he worked with Aleksander Ford (from Chopin’s Youth and The Five from Barska Street, through The Teutonic Knights and The Eighth Day of the Week,  to The First Day of Freedom), whom he publicly praised for his “declaration of equality” of the composer, the director and the scriptwriter:

It was a great pleasure for me to listen to Mr Ford say that the composer was the creator of the film, just like the scriptwriter and the director. From a director of Mr Ford’s stature, this is a very valuable statement [...].

What became a true challenge for both artists was the work on Chopin’s Youth [2], a film regarded as a very prestigious anniversary production, which, however, was not premiered until 1952. The composer undertook independent ethnographic research in Mazovia and tried to reconstruct 19th century folk sources of Chopin’s music. Not only did he manage to successfully solve a number of problems related to the period and its musical style, but he also created evocative representations of Chopin’s creative process. This is how Zofia Lissa describes them:

Not only do we hear clearly how three shots in the street are transformed into the first notes of Prelude in D minor,but also in the wonderful hallucination scene with the ailing Chopin, Serocki shows how the sounds of a postman’s horn turn into the first motifs of Etude in A minor(Op. 25) or how motifs from Prelude in F minor  swell with horror and dread in the composer’s imagination. The most interesting of Serocki’s reconstructions comes in the case of Etude in C minor  (Revolutionary). On hearing the tragic news from Warsaw, Chopin, who is in Vienna, strikes some loose chords and unconnected motifs from this Etude, initially not even corresponding to the original work we know today. Slowly, there emerges and matures a work which we know as Chopin’s Etude in C minor. Here Serocki’s music reflects this gradual transformation, this cleansing, clarification and crystallisation of the composer’s idea, constituting a very important element of illustration in the film.

In total, Serocki’s film music took up no fewer than 798 metres of film tape. According to an inventory compiled by the film production management, this music included:

  • Improvisation on the theme of Chopin’s Scherzo in B minor
  • Rafters’ Song
  • Zuzka’s Song
  • Arrangement of a fragment from Mozart’s mass
  • Chopin’s improvisation on the organ
  • Lullaby
  • Songs on the way to the wedding and dances
  • Musical illustration during wandering
  • A shepherd girl’s and blind man’s song
  • Polonaise
  • Waltz to a tune by Lanner
  • Barrel organ and kurdesz [a drinking song]
  • Szotka [a folk dance]
  • Little housekeeper
  • Oberek [a folk dance]
  • Sleigh ride
  • Improvisation on the theme of Chopin’s Prelude in D minor
  • Cadenza to the orchestral introduction in part II of Chopin’s Concerto in E minor
  • Composition of Chopin’s Etude in C minor

Thus, a formulaic and tendentious script was not an obstacle for Serocki to write excellent and varied music, which is, according to Iwona Sowińska, in the context of the whole “... too good even [...], wiser and more honest than the rest”.

Various authors have stressed that the next film by Ford and Serocki, The Five of Barska Street (1953)[3], made in the spirit of Italian neo-realism, broke with socialist realist cliches, making the psychological portraits of the protagonists individualised and more complex. Serocki’s music in the film is not formulaic either. In this soundtrack the composer not only used conventional, symphonic musical gestures, but also combined them skilfully with both folk music stylisations (e.g. the oberek danced by young road construction workers at a New Year’s Eve ball) and urban folklore presented by a Warsaw street band.

However, Serocki found the best opportunity to show his versatility and originality when working on The Eighth Day of the Week (1958) based on Marek Hłasko’s prose and directed by Ford. The film was blocked by censors and its Polish premiere did not take place until 1983, when its two main authors had already been dead. Even after years spent on the shelves Serocki’s music still sounds excellent. Already in the opening credits we can hear, in addition to a chromatic-sounding symphonic theme, a jazzy saxophone and motifs revealing improvisation sympathies of the future author of Swinging music.[4] The main musical motif from The Eighth Day of the Week  became so popular after the film’s premiere in Germany and the USA that as late as in 1958 the composer received proposals for it to be arranged and combined with lyrics.

The musical illustration to The Teutonic Knights (1960), on the other hand, contained clear expressive elements, which functioned successfully also in Serocki’s later film scores. These elements include, to quote Karol Bulanda, “political, heroic” music, e.g. the Bogurodzica hymn introduced at the beginning of the biggest battle scene,[5] or the German song Tandaradei; “folkloristic” music, e.g. Danusia’s song If only I had...; as well as “dance” music, in a folk and courtly version, for the dance in the inn and at the king’s court.

After the collaboration with Aleksander Ford ended – with The First Day of Freedom based on Leon Kruczkowski’s play (1964) – Serocki did not have too many opportunities to show his remarkable ability to evoke various music styles or emotional atmospheres in feature-length films. The focus of his interests shifted at that time to animated films. He wrote music for several flagship works of the so-called Polish school of animation from the late 1950s and early 1960s, represented mainly by Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk, distinguished visual artists and film-makers. Perhaps it is no coincidence that one of the composer’s texts kept in the University Library contains Jan Lenica’s Paris address...

Although Serocki did not collaborate directly with Lenica and Borowczyk (music to their most famous animations, Once upon a time... and The House, was composed by Andrzej Markowski and Włodzimierz Kotoński), he worked on several occasions with the director and scriptwriter Witold Giersz (b. 1927). In 1967 he composed music to his animated film entitled The Horse, a picturesque tale about a horse that does not let man tame him. The animation technique used here involved applying thick layers of paint that seemed to be changing during painting. The reviewers stressed that the uniqueness of the film stemmed from the fact that not only the horse and the rider were involved in the action, but so was the matter itself, i.e. the texture of the picture, the colours and types of brush strokes, all of which made the picture very dynamic. Of course, Serocki’s music is not as experimental as the image. It comprises six minutes of very evocative sound motifs, using the orchestra and the percussion. We can hear in it effects imitating hoof-beat and neighing, great rhythm and colour variety, in other words, musical means rooted in the composer’s artistic oeuvre were completely subordinated here to this desired effect of the music being “in tune” with the image.[6]

Another animated film, Traces, from 1975, consisted of abstract visual images. As the title suggests, the film presents various traces from human life, i.e. footprints, of small and large feet, of children and adults, elderly people with walking canes. People wear shoes or not, they walk, dance, waddle, feast at tables, fall etc. Serocki again wrote very evocative, vivid music and combined it with naturalistic sound effects so that, when harmonised with the image, we have no doubt what the situation is, though we only see the eponymous traces.[7] Serocki also composed music for The Splendid March by Giersz (1970) – a story of a little drummer in Napoleon’s army who, remembering the words of the Emperor, always goes forward, without parting with his drum.

 

 

The Splendid March, animation with Serocki's music
Realization: Witold Giersz (1970)

Serocki’s greatest achievement in film music is, undoubtedly, the soundtrack to The Deluge (1974). Karol Bulanda describes it as follows:

There is no denying that music in The Deluge is noticeable, frequently becoming equal to the image. It is almost an autonomous work drawing on Serocki’s compositional style from the 1970s, yet, despite this, not diverging artistically from the period depicted in the film.

We are dealing here with both avant-garde means, typical of Serocki’s artistic music – dissonances, pointillistically dispersed sounds and, above all, the so-called sonorist technique, of which Serocki was an unquestionable master convinced that timbre should be the prime element of music – and with archaising and folk stylisation known from his previous films. Thus, musical motifs from The Deluge neatly correspond to the catalogue of sound expression types proposed by Karol Bulanda. “Political, heroic” music is represented, like in The Teutonic Knights, by Bogurodzica (sung here during the siege of Jasna Góra), and by the psalm A Mighty Fortress Is Our God sung the Swedes[8]. We hear “dance” music in Radziwiłł’s palace, while “folkloristic” music is represented primarily by the folk song Oh, I will go out [9], sung in the first scene of the film by spinners in Oleńka’s house in Wodokty. It has remained quite popular to this day, also as a choral piece on its own.

Serocki’s mastery of composition can be seen in his use of the leitmotif technique in The Deluge. It is based on the already mentioned melodies – the psalm sung by the Swedes and the folk song sung by the spinners – and on a truly sonoristic motif, “horror motif”, as Bulanda puts it, which appears in the film’s opening credits[10]. The motifs recurs on a number of occasions and undergoes numerous, sometimes very sophisticated musical transformations. As a result, music in The Deluge does “emotionally enhance the content of the film” and is perfectly harmonised with the images, i.e. fulfils the main objectives indicated by the composer already in his 1949 paper quoted above. These have proved timeless and independent of ideological pressures. Serocki managed to introduce – within the convention imposed by the genre, i.e. great historical spectacle on film – his own, original qualities, the artistic value of which can be most fully appreciated by comparing this music to the soundtrack accompanying the film version of the last part of Sienkiewicz’s trilogy, With Fire and Sword, filmed in 1999.

Zdzisław Sierpiński recalls how Serocki, reluctant to talk to journalists, refused to give him an interview for a television programme about the film score in The Deluge as an example of perfect integration of the image with the music.

But,  writes Sierpiński, `he immediately softened the refusal, saying that he would help me chose the relevant fragments. We spent whole Sunday editing, and thanks to his remarks and descriptions only then did I fully understand how masterfully, with what sense of visual drama this music accompanied the Swedish deluge'.

We can only regret that The Deluge turned out to be Serocki’s last encounter with film music.

 

  • Karol Bulanda, “Potop w Czarcim Żlebie. Muzyka filmowa Kazimierza Serockiego” [“The Deluge in the Devil’s Ravine. Kazimierz Serocki’s film music”], Glissando 2007 no. 1011.
  • Iwona Sowińska, Polska muzyka filmowa 1945–1968 [Polish Film Music 19451968], Katowice 2006.
  • Zofia Lissa, “Muzyka filmowa” [“Film music”], [in:] Kultura muzyczna Polski Ludowej. 19441955 [Musical Culture in the People’s Republic of Poland. 19441955], Kraków 1957.
  • Zdzisław Sierpiński, To już dziesięć lat...” [“It’s been ten years...”], Życie Warszawy 15/1991.