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Symphonies Vol. 1

Leif Kayser

Symphonies Vol. 1

Aalborg Symphony Orchestra, Matthias Aeschbacher

The life of the Danish composer Leif Kayser (1919-2001) was devoted equally to the religious and the musical. However, after establishing himself early as one of the young hopes of Danish musical life, he broke off his musical career to become a Catholic priest. This release features Leif Kayser's Second and Third Symphony. Both works are typified by the composer's remarkable technical mastery and rich sonorous idiom that unites a great Danish tradition with the most exciting elements of the past currents in European music.

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Total runtime: 
73 min.

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 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.

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.


Second Symphony

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.

The first 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 pastores laudavere (‘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.

The 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 sung before."


Third Symphony

Whereas the 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.

The Third 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.

The 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

Release date: 
March 2007
Cat. No.: 
Track count: 


Recorded Aalborghallen 17-20 May 2005 and 26-29 June 2006
Recording producer: Morten Mogensen
Sound engineer: Claus Byrith
Mastering: Claus Byrith and Morten Mogensen

Graphic design: Elevator