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 Danmarks 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.
Symphony no. 1
Leif Kayser's First Symphony was written when he was 19, and is remarkable
testi-mony to the composer's early musical and technical maturity. In Danish
musical history the early debut can perhaps be compared to that of Rued
Langgaard (1893-1952), who was also 19 when he wrote his hour-long, Late
Romantic First Symphony, which was given its first performance by the Berlin
Philharmonic under Max Fiedler in 1913. Niels W. Gade (1817-90) was after all
25 in 1843 when he had his breakthrough with the sym--phony På Sjølunds Fagre Sletter (On the Fair Plains of Zealand) in the
Gewand-haus in Leipzig under the baton of Mendelssohn.
Kayser's symphony too was greeted with
enthusiasm at the first performance in Gothenburg in 1939, and it aroused great
expectations of this musical Wunderkind. He was the coming man, it seemed.
In fact the age was not entirely kind to
symphonic composers. In 1940 the French-inspired composer Knudåge Riisager
(1897-1974) declared in an article in Dansk
Musiktidsskrift that the symphonic form had been
exhausted. "The symphony is dead - long live music!" was the provocative title.
It triggered off an intense debate, not least with those of the composers of
the day who, like Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996) and Herman D. Koppel (1908-1998)
stuck to the symphony. Holmboe put a number of criti-cal questions to
Riisager's article and was answered that "any new monumental work must first
and foremost build on the materials of our time, which require a distinctive
development that must bear within itself the need for and the germ of the new
form". Invoking composers like Debussy, Bartók and Stravinsky, Riisager
declared that the way forward lay in "objectively" oriented music, not in the
dramatic-psychological symphonic form.
The young Kayser does not appear to have
pitched into this debate. But his music clearly shows where he stood. He wrote
his first two symphonies in a brief, intense bout of work before he turned 20.
They are both permeated by the tradition, as he himself willingly conceded. The
next two symphonies were longer in coming, and are stylis-ti-cally more
complex, but still demonstrably of the "dramatic-psychological" persuasion. One
could speak of a questioning of the tradition, but never a rejection of it.
First Symphony was begun in November 1937 while the
composer was at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copen--hagen, studying
with Poul Schierbeck. Kayser has said that the beginning of the first movement
started life as an instrumentation exercise for full orchestra. The section up
to 2:16 was originally a slow introduction to a fast movement. However, the
fast part was soon dropped, and instead the introduction was expanded to the
present first movement, "adamant and insistent throughout", as the composer
The second movement, a largo
cantabile, follows without a break at 4:30. The melody
is a transformation, as in the cyclical works of César Franck for example, of
the first subject of the first movement. It is played monophonically by violins
and violas. After a while a new but related theme emerges in the flute. Then
after some episodes of modulation comes the recapitulation, where the first
subject of the second movement is taken over by French horns and trombones, and
the second subject by the violins.
The final movement is launched with an
intensely contrasting effect at 10:26. After a few fierce passages in the
strings the first subject comes with great force in the brass. The movement, in
free rondo form, is typified by variety, ranging from the energetic over Carl
Nielsenesque ‘farmyard motifs' to an exuberant ending in D major.
The symphony was finished in April 1938
and had its first performance in Febru-ary 1939 in Gothenburg under the baton
of Tor Mann. The first performance was a great success, and the next year Tor
Mann repeated the work in one of Danmarks Radio's Thursday Concerts, again to
great acclaim from critics and audiences. After a reworking in the summer of
1940 the symphony was published by Skandinavisk og Borups Forlag with a
dedication to the conductor of the first performance, Tor Mann.
Symphony no. 4
There appears to
be a world of difference between Leif Kayser's first and fourth sym-pho-nies.
Whereas the First Symphony is short, traditional in style, and ends with an explosion of
youthful optimism, the Fourth Symphony is extended, complex, inward and almost defiant in its tonal idiom.
It is music by a composer with scruples. What had happened in the meantime?
In 1966, when the Fourth
Symphony was first performed, Kayser was acutely
aware of the change in the spirit of the times, a change he did not care for.
In an interview before the first performance he said, "Finally, I must disappoint
you by saying that although this is a first performance, you must not expect it
to be like what you usually understand by the music of our time. I have been so
old-fashioned as to use music paper, and the instruments are also allowed to
play." Modernism, which had made its entry in Denmark in the 1960s, had created
expecta-tions in contemporary music that Kayser viewed as diametrically opposed
to his own ideals and to the Danish, Carl Nielsen-influenced tradition of music
built up from melody. There could be no question of betraying these ideals.
On the other hand he wished least of all
to pander to banality. Angling after easy success was alien to his nature. When
organists who wanted to perform his organ works complained over his use of the
difficult-to-read C-clefs, he could reply acerbically that this was meant to
weed out the inept organists. In his music he wanted to live up to the demands
of the age for a progressive sound. The result that comes to expression in
various ways in his works from this period is a raising of the tolerance
threshold for dissonances and technical complications.
This forced him into the role of elitist
reactionary, and seems to have made him entrench himself behind a defiant
armour in his music as well as in his relations with others. One of many
anecdotes about Kayser from recent years comes from the organist Charley Olsen,
who often visited him in his modest presbytery to play through Kayser's
arrangements of new music for four-hand piano. In the face of Stravinsky's Le
Sacre du Printemps Charley Olsen had to raise the white flag. "Cissy!" was Kayser's
The first subject of the first movement
is heard immediately at the beginning in the oboe. It is in two parts: first a
marching motif, then a small dotted turning figure with the designation grazioso. Both motifs are varied and elaborated in ingenious fugato fashion
in the first section of the movement. Then a contrast comes: a long, peaceful
melody over an underlying pedal-point in the bass and rocking figures in the
bassoons. The compact recapitulation begins with the first subject in the brass
and the move-ment ebbs out peacefully with a flute solo.
The second movement is the symphony's
scherzo. After some introductory fan-fares quick string passages lead on to the
theme, which is played in octaves by violas and cellos. Motivically related to
this is a melody in the trumpets that manages to involve all twelve notes of
the chromatic scale. In the middle section we hear a new theme that is treated
in the fugato style, until the recapitulation enters at full strength.
The turnaround comes in the last two,
expansive movements of the symphony, which interlock without a break, and each
of which is longer than the whole First Symphony. A dark, agitated tone typifies the slow third movement, which is
full of small intervals, jarring dissonances and an almost Sibelius-like
fondness for the low registers of the instruments. In the middle section the
woodwind engage in long soliloquies, and the recapitulation builds up to a violent,
passionate climax, after which the music slowly falls calm over muffled
movement begins with imaginative cadenzas in flute and cor anglais, then the
cellos present the first subject of the movement in the high register. If one
notes that it is a movement dominated by melodies, that it is in a rocking 9/8
time and - especially towards the end - uses colourful instruments such as
castanets, harp, tambou-rine and triangle, it must at the same time be said
that the movement is stressful in tone and coloured by harsh dissonances that
even affect the concluding, only partly resolving G major chord.
The first performance in May 1966 by the
Odense City Orchestra under Martel-lius Lundquist was not an immediate
-success. Even sympathetic reviewers said that "his thematic material is rather
weak in character", and that "Kayser makes his task doubly difficult because he
is in every way on charted territory in the shadow of a great past." It was to
be the 47-year-old Kayser's last symphony.
Michael Garnæs, 2008