Leif Kayser was an organist and composer. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen with Poul Schierbeck and Hilding Rosenberg and with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He later returned to the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen as a teacher. He had extensive concert activities as an organ and piano soloist. His works include orchestral music (four symphonies etc.), compositions and transcriptions for concert band, film music, piano, organ, and chamber works; choral music (five masses etc.) and songs, including children’s songs.
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 Copenhagen, 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 Boulanger 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.
Mikael Garnæs, 2006
In Dacapo booklet 8.224708: LEIF KAYSER Symphonies Vol. 1