musician becomes an artist, he is a human being, and his human qualities will
always show in his art, be they good or bad. The first, greatest and most
important requirement of the composer - as of any artist - must therefore be
that he cultivates his spirituality, the best he possesses as a -human being,
so he will be able to give -others something valuable, as a human -being and as
Thus did Leif Kayser formulate his
musical credo in 1947. His own life was devoted equally to the religious and
the musical. After establishing himself early as one of the young hopes of
Danish musical life, he broke off his musical career to train as a Catholic
priest and he later functioned as priest, composer and concert organist. The
spiritual aspirations to which Kayser refers stamp his music, which from the
outset bore the marks of a certain reserve and modesty. From the start he
adopted his own standpoint. In a century typified by great stylistic upheavals
he never felt attracted by experiments for their own sake.
As a child
he sang in the boys' choir at the Catholic St. Knud's School in Copenhagen, and
at an early stage he became familiar with Gregorian chant. In 1936 he was
admitted to the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen with P.S.
Rung-Keller as his teacher in organ and Poul Schierbeck in instrumentation.
After taking his diploma as a pianist and organist he went to Stockholm to
study with Hilding Rosenberg (composition) and Tor Mann (orchestral
conducting). By that time he had already made his debut as a composer with the First Symphony, which was given its first performance in the
Gothenburg Concert Society with Tor Mann conducting.
The critics were enthusiastic, not least
about the craftsmanship of the work. "Carl Nielsen rose to his Olympus, but
sent Kayser down here," was one of the reactions. In 1940 followed the Second
Symphony, which was performed in one of the radio's
Thursday Concerts, again conducted by Tor Mann, and the same year the concert
overture Kong Christian stod (‘King Christian Stood') for the occasion of King Christian X's
70th birthday. In September 1940 he had his first work printed, 7
Pezzi per violino solo.
was on his way, and the 20-year-old composer looked like becoming the man of
the moment in Danish music. So it aroused something of a sensation when he
broke off his musical activities in 1942 to -travel to Rome and train as a
Catholic priest. On coming home in 1949 he became the priest at the Catholic
St. Ansgar's Cathedral in Copen-hagen, where he had earlier been engaged as
organist. Alongside his ministry as a priest, though, he resumed his musical
production. The Third Symphony, which he had already begun during his
theology studies in Rome, was completed in the course of the ten years 1943-53.
In addition he produced a number of sacred music works, such as a Christmas
oratorio for soloists, choir and orchestra (1943-47), a Te Deum (1946-53) and a succession of organ works which over the years grew in
quantity and are among the most important in the Danish organ production of the
In 1964, at his own wish, he was
released from his priestly vows, and a few years later he married Johanne
Elisabeth Bruun. He was engaged as a teacher at the Royal Danish Academy of
Music in Copenhagen in the subjects instrumentation and score analysis, where
he became well known for his meticulousness and perfectionism. Ideally, he
said, a score should be so precise that an orchestral work can be performed
without previous rehearsals. He could get quite annoyed if a pupil found a rare
notation error in one of his works.
music Leif Kayser was from the beginning conscious of the importance of the
tradition. He willingly acknowledged his debt to Gregorian chant, as is evident
not only from his sacred music but also in passages such as the introduction to
the Second Symphony. As for most Danish composers of his
generation, Carl Nielsen was a primary source of inspiration; beyond this he
felt most affinities with the melodic-tonal current in European music,
composers such as Bartók, Stravinsky and Hindemith. He used Hindemith's Unterweisung im Tonsatz in his teaching. In 1955, in the midst of his
activities as a priest, he took leave of absence to study with the champion of
Stravinsky Nadia Bou-langer in Paris. As a pianist he was one of the first in
Denmark to play Messiaen's -music, not least his Visions of the Amen. He tacitly ignored the serial and avant-garde
music that arrived in Denmark in earnest in the 1960s.
did not mean that his music was unaffected by the currents of the age. The
development simply took place at his own tempo and was typified by thorough
reflection. There is a clear difference between the relatively carefree,
stylistically traditional early works and the more complicated and speculative
music from his mature years, which is often dry, with a high information
density, coloured by unprepared dissonances and with a deliberately unlovely
exterior. In a radio broadcast he explained that it takes time to absorb a
tradition in earnest. Only when a composer has really understood and lived
through the tradition will he be able to leave his personal mark on it.
In his later years Leif Kayser suffered a
waning interest in his works. The musical elite rallied round the avant-garde
and wrote him off as old-fashioned, while the general public found his music
too dry and uninviting. The Fourth Symphony, created in the years 1945-63, was his last major orchestral work.
On the other hand he exploited his expertise in orchestral treatment in his
teaching, and exhibited a great deal of productivity with music for string
bands, school orchestras and brass bands. The series of organ pieces grew by
among other works four voluminous suites (1956-73), Requiem (1955-58), Concerto
(1965) and Church Panes (1975). He personally gave many of these works their first
performances. Finally, as a result of his teaching work, he published a long
succession of piano settings of classical orchestral works, one of which, the
piano arrangement of Carl Nielsen's Espansiva symphony, is in print.
Leif Kayser's Second
Symphony was written in 1939, shortly after the
first performance of the First Symphony. It was given its first performance in February 1940 in Gothenburg
and later played in the Danmarks Radio Thursday Concert of 10th October 1940,
on both occasions conducted by the Swede Tor Mann. It is an expansive and
ambitious work in the traditional four movements, typified by a remarkable
technical mastery of the large orchestral apparatus.
movement, with its rocking 6/8 rhythm and its gently melodious idiom, continues
a Danish tradition. But Gregorian chant too makes itself heard at the beginning
of the movement, where the individual string groups, and later the solo winds,
unfold their long unaccompanied melody lines. In the third bar of the violas,
which returns at the end of the movement, one can hear a perhaps unintentional
echo of the Latin Christmas song Quem
(‘Shepherds came, their praises bringing'). The movement is built up as a
series of waves of increasing contrapuntal complexity and ebbs out as it began
with the unison melody of the violas.
A review of the Danish first performance
said that the scherzo "will pass into Danish musical history as the most boring
ever written", a judgement that is rather surprising, inasmuch as this very
movement is written with a light hand and exhibits a virtuosity in the
orchestral treatment that comes as a complete contrast to the first movement.
The winds lead the way in a whirling texture that is transparent and thoroughly
articulated down to the last note.
A ceremonial, modally tinged harmony
colours the slow movement, whose basic subject with its little rising third is
present almost throughout. The tone is hymnic, and the warm, full orchestral
sound is given extra colour by the introduction of a mixed choir singing on the
vowel A. Unlike the Late Romantic symphonies with choral elements, where the
function was always to bring a textual dimension into the work, the choir has
solely a sonorous function here and is thus more akin to Carl Nielsen's use of
singing voices in the second movement of Espansiva.
energetic first subject of the final movement, Allegro con brio in
A major, is not conceivable either without Carl Nielsen's example. The whole
movement takes a festive course and ends in stately manner by bringing back the
choir for some concluding remarks.
In the reviews the Second
Symphony was judged in very different ways. The
reviewers agreed on praising the young composer's technical dexterity, but
while some spoke of "blessed clarity and exemplary logic", others called it "an
amazingly stale work that operates exclusively with old familiar resources."
Kayser was asked to respond to the
criticism in the newspaper B.T., and
he wrote: "There are reviewers who have reproached me with the criticism that
my music is based on traditions - and they are absolutely right. There is
perhaps no one who knows that better than myself. I could take my First
Symphony apart phrase by phrase and say: "You have that from Bach ... now it is
César Franck who is joining in the conversation ... and here it is Carl Nielsen
who has influenced you." I willingly concede my debt to all the composers who
have written the music that has given my 21 years content and perspective. I
openly declare my love of Gregorian -sacred music, and my soul is moved to this
very day just as strongly - or stronger than before - by a simple Praetorius
triad. It is the love of music that has made me a composer - or at any rate an
industrious music copyist. Is there really anything odd about the fact that I
write down what the heart is full of? You could as well go out in the field and
forbid a young lark to sing trills that sound like the ones the old larks have
first two symphonies were written in a relatively short time, Leif Kayser's Third
Symphony was a whole ten years in coming. This may
be because in the years 1943-53 he only composed part-time, since he was busy
with his theology studies in Rome and later his priestly duties at St. Ansgar's
Church in Copenhagen. But in addition the form and tonal idiom of the symphony
are so new and different from the earlier ones that we experience it as a new
composer taking new liberties with his classicist starting-point. While the
first symphonies preserved the classical four-movement form, the Third
Symphony is an unbroken progression, although
subdivided into clear sections.
Symphony begins like the Second with a unison
string melody. The cellos present the first subject "tranquillo e cantabile" -
calmly and singably. But whereas the Second
Symphony was diatonic and as clear as day, the Third
Symphony - at least in some sections - is strongly
chromatic and generally coloured by substantially higher dissonant tensions.
The key of the symphony is D minor, but the first four bars of the subject
already cover the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. It is not in
Schoenberg's twelve-tone music that one finds the inspiration for this -
Schoenberg's music only really became known in Denmark at the end of the 1950s,
and Leif Kayser was never its champion. One should rather see it as a game with
the expanded tonality and its possibilities.
The first subject in the cellos is
immediately followed up by the second important subject of the movement, a
brief figure in the oboe. The whole movement unfolds as a fantasia over these
two subjects which are set up against each other, developed further and
combined. After a culmination we are guided over into the next section of the
symphony, a largo with a quick middle section. Expansive string sounds of
bright, pure beauty are inter-rupted by a busy, neoclassically inspired
episode, but the hymnic tone returns.
The next section functions more or less
as the symphony's scherzo, but there are not many traces of the scherzo form in
the almost improvisatory course of the music. It begins with some short
eruptions in the brasses that are set against intangible gestures in the
strings and woodwinds. There follows a section in shifting time signatures with
muted timpani and pizzicato strings, later with long, chromatic melody lines in
the flutes. The movement reaches its climax with a powerful transformation of
the introductory motif of the brasses and then moves through a succession of
solo passages to the grandly conceived finale.
is a slow movement with a number of subjects that unfold one by one in
dignified calm and with much contra-puntal treatment, to be combined in the end
at the peak of the movement. This begins with a chorale-like theme in the
woodwinds and low strings, and is followed by a cantabile D major theme in the
violins. The third theme, which consists of repeated notes and a small turning
figure, is heard for the first time as a contrast to the D major theme. The
culmination is a masterpiece of counterpoint, where the themes are played all
at once - and the D major theme into the bargain as a canon between trumpets
and trombones. The movement ebbs out in a pure, quiet ending with the echo
effect of the horns and an original and definitive-sounding cadence in D major.
Although the Third
Symphony is among Kayser's best works, the first
performance was a disappointment for him. He did not think the musicians had
done their best, and the interest of the audience waned. A few people liked the
work. Kayser's pupil, the composer Niels la Cour, has said of the symphony:
"With its freely fantasizing structure it can almost be felt as a young man's
musical self-portrait, a self-portrait that reveals a little of the world to
which the composer dedicated his life. A remarkably pure and almost
suprapersonal beauty radiates from this music."
Mikael Garnæs, 2006