Before the premiere of Alabama March: A talk with Máté Balogh

Máté Balogh's Alabama March was commissioned by the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra of Alabama. The premiere will take place on September 27, 2019, in Huntsville. We asked the composer about composing for orchestra, his relationship with tradition, and the meeting of different cultures.

You have said recently: Alabama March is your first genuine orchestral piece. Obviously, there were precedents in your career: what is different about Alabama March?

For obtaining my composing diploma, I wrote a series of orchestral variations on a Haydn theme - better to forget today. Then the competitions of the New Hungarian Composers' Forum gave me the opportunity to write orchestral pieces. In 2015, I won an award for my piece Quintet, but it was actually made up of five chamber ensembles together, it wasn't a real orchestral composition. It can be said that my composing routine did not primarily concern orchestral apparatus.

How did it come to this commission?

Last December, Gergely Vajda, the chief conductor of the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra, asked me to compose a short piece to mark the 200th anniversary of the founding of State of Alabama. It immediately occurred to me that I was going to write a symphonic march. I liked the idea so much that I completed it in two days. In hindsight, it occurred to me that maybe Weill's Alabama Song from Mahagonny might influence me. At the Franz Liszt Music Academy, I was teaching the history of Sprechgesang, so I did a lot of work with Weill at the time.

March is an existing musical movement and it helped a lot; it has a traditional instrumentation structure that provided security. I used the soloistic melody types used in the genre, partly the usual accompaniment figures. In an earlier piece of mine, Pseudomarsch, I used similar motifs. Although that work was only for brass band, I was not thinking of chamber music, but rather of bulky sound. With Pseudomarsch I won first prize at a composer competition in 2017; since then it has been recorded by the Hungarian Radio, has been broadcast several times, and in the meantime, I have received commissions from brass bands to compose marches – thus, to put it overstated, composing marches has become almost my trademark.

Of course, that's not just where your skills in marches come from ...

Yes, my father led the Dunaújváros Brass Band and I was playing different instruments since I was 7 years old. The repertoire consisted mostly of military music, much of the Austro-Hungarian tradition, but of course, we also played a lot of American brass music: I can play Sousa’s Washington Post March even today by heart.

And how do you relate to this repertoire? Can you take it seriously? Or are you more sarcastic?

When composers use the march on the concert stage, separated from real or operatic movements, one must always suspect the joke. In Mozart’s Non più andrai it is obvious that it must be perceived as a gag, Schubert's four-handed marches are only humorous, and Mahler’s marches often give similar impressions, mostly as a mixture of tragic and comic elements. At an American football game, when they march in with cheerleaders and giant sousaphones, I can't take it seriously either.

I wrote my own march with such back hints: This is a serious joke. Whenever I build my own music on something from the past, I always need to stay away from it. There is always some irony in this, perhaps sarcasm. I do not know how this will be perceived in America, but being Eastern European, it is self-evident for me.