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Leif Kayser

Symphonies Vol. 2

Aalborg Symphony Orchestra
Matthias Aeschbacher, conductor

Leif Kayser, composer

Leif Kayser (1919-2001) was an indisputably gifted composer and quickly established himself as one of the coming young men of the Danish musical scene, until he abandoned it for a period to dedicate himself to the priesthood. Today the four symphonies in particular stand as some of the finest testimony to Kayser's talent in the repertoire. Dacapo released Symphonies 2 and 3 in 2007. Vol. 2 offers here the Late Romantic work of his youth, Symphony no. 1 from 1939, as well as the fourth and last symphony from 1963 with a correspondingly far more inward, almost defiant tonal idiom.

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Symphony no. 1 (1937-38)

Maestoso, non troppo lento - Largo cantabile - Furioso - Piu agitato - Presto

16:22 Play $3.50
Symphony no. 4 (1945-63)

I Moderato

8:44 Play $2.10

II Molto vivace

6:04 Play $2.10

III Lento

20:39 Play $4.90

IV Finale: Moderato

17:11 Play $3.50
Total playing time  69 minutes

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Leif Kayser

"Before the 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 an artist."

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.

Leif Kayser 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 time.

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.

In his 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.

But this 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.

The 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 describes it.

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 comment.

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 drumbeats.

The final 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

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Recorded at Aalborghallen on 23-27 June 2008
Recording producer: Morten Mogensen
Sound engineer: Claus Byrith
Mastering: Claus Byrith

Graphic design:

Label: Dacapo

Format: CD

Catalogue Number: 8.224709

Barcode: 747313690923

Release Date: December 2008

Period: Early 20th Century

Digital booklet (pdf) available for download customers


4/5 Stars
"That work, while falling into the conventional four-movement symphonic form, has an unusual shape, with a slow movement that dwarfs the other three. It's well worth hearing. Highly recommended."
If you're interested in good post-Romantic music than you should hear this. (Classics Today.com)

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