This interview was made by Roland Maitz for his Masterthesis. The student of the University of Music and Performing Arts at Graz asked Áron Simon about his ‘An Alpine Symphony’ arrangement.
Translated by János Sutyák
How did you get the idea of working with Richard Strauss' 'An Alpine Symphony'?
Usually I don’t look for pieces to arrange, the pieces find me. What I mean by this is that I hear a new tune somewhere and I immediately feel that this would be a great piece to be rearranged for a different instrumentation. Also, once I am done with an arrangement I can immediately ask my colleagues to play it thru so I can make the necessary changes if needed. It is a big help to make things work.
I have a very special relationship with The Alpine Symphony. The idea to arrange it came to my mind in 2014 when I was going through a very difficult time in my life. Around this time my father was diagnosed with cancer and a year later in 2015 he passed away. I still remember that I was working on this arrangement on the day of his passing.
Of course I knew this monumental piece of Strauss since my high school years, but didn’t feel ready to start arranging it until 2014. And then the journey began. It was full of emotions, beauty, challenges, happiness and sadness. Night after night when I was working on the arrangement I got closer and closer to Strauss’s’ ideas about the Alpine journey.
Why did you arrange this piece for trombone ensemble instead of another formation?
I am a former member of the Szeged Trombone Ensemble and we still maintain a very close relationship. I made most of my arrangements for this group and it was obvious that this adaptation will be premiered by them as well. I strongly believe that a trombone ensemble has an incredible amount of potential. There are so many different colors they could use. Not to mention the wide range of instruments from the contra bass trombone to the alto trombone. On top of all these, while I was arranging this piece I was experimenting with the different mutes and chord placements too. All these facts together give me the chance to create an arrangement for such a unique sounding ensemble.
And to go even further I have to mention that when I added a tuba and a full percussion section to my arrangements I was able to adapt big orchestra pieces to a size of a chamber ensemble. Of course when I am working on arranging a full orchestra score to an eight to twelve chamber ensemble I had to come to a compromise. These arrangements are really stretching the limits of the instruments but at the end of the day it all pays off and the sounding is incredible. A trombone ensemble can do it all.
Do you consider yourself more of a composer or arranger?
There are many cases when composers do arrangements, just think about Bach or Liszt. The other side of the coin is true as well. There are cases when an arranger needs to pull out his/her composition skills and do a little composing. Composing and arranging are somehow related but definitely require different skills. A composer creates or composes something out of nothing that will have the signature features of his very own language. This is serious ’creative-art’. On the other hand an arranger is working with something that has already been a finished product. It is the arranger’s job to get the original composition apart, screw by screw and then put it together again and place it to a different dimension. If I would have to name this process I would call it something like ’re-creative-art’.
In my dreams I would love to be one of those old masters that played on many instruments, composed music, arranged, created and run musical ensembles and really knew their stuff. One could call them true MUSICIANs with all capital. I would like to be something like what I just explained one day but if you ask me now I would say I am an arranger. I don’t have any completed compositions yet. However, I have over 300 arrangements that might qualify me to be called an arranger I guess.
Did you use the original orchestra score by Strauss while working on the arrangement?
I have been working on my arrangements without scores many times before. Sometimes the scores are not even available for purchase so I have to work by ear. Usually when I don’t use the score it is when I work on movie tracks, jazz or pop tunes. It is much tiring to work by ear but it has a good side too. I don’t get lost in the details of the score. It might sound strange but there is less pressure and I can focus more on the sound colors without getting too detailed with the score. This is when my composer ’skills’ come handy. However, for this particular arrangement I combined the two and I used both the score and listened to recordings as well. As a result I managed to create something that is not a 100% score based but also carries some special colors.
What challenges did you face to while arranging?
The Alpine Symphony is a fifty minutes long, late romantic, GIANT symphonic poem that includes 22 phases of the Alpine journey. And I wanted to reduce it to a concert version for a chamber ensemble. I think that was the most difficult part of it J
Luckily when I was working on this arrangement I was surrounded by fantastic musicians of the Szeged Trombone Ensemble so there was almost no technical limit to apply. I was able to use pretty difficult or one would say ’extreme’ solutions. Let me give you an example. Strauss frequently asked the horns to play ’gestopft’ in Alpine Symphony so I had to figure out how to apply it to the trombones. As college students we used to fool around by playing Siegfried’s call on the trombones. We placed our right hand over the slide to the bell and played it like that. For certain notes we had to use the valve too but it sounded pretty decent. So I used the same technique in the Alpine Symphony too and asked the players to play ’gestopft’ on the trombone. All in all reducing the size and coming up with some ‘technical inventions’ were the hardest part.
Szeged Trombone Ensemble plays excerpts from Richard Strauss's (1864-1949) 'An Alpine Symphony.' Arranged by Áron Simon.
How much time did you need to finish this arrangement?
If I remember correctly the process of arranging took me about one month. Prior to that I did around two weeks of ’mental work’. I had to think about the piece. Think about technical solutions, the sounding and just simply learn the piece inside out before jumping into writing it down on paper. This mental work really helps me because I already have specific ideas when I start the actual arranging process.
One specific part of the piece took me a while to figure out. I could not possibly get to the „Ausklang” part. I didn’t even want to include this section in my arrangement but I also didn’t want to mess up the section orders. So I had to be really careful and smart before touching this section. I took my score, pencil and notebook with me everywhere and I was constantly working on the piece on the train or wherever I could. I was studying the score a lot before I finally found a solution. I took me a while to find the key to arrange the leading measures to the „Ausklang” movement.
How did you decide on which parts of the original piece will be arranged?
I wanted to make sure that the basic message of the piece should remain uninterrupted. I had to be careful not to really disturb the form of the piece as well. But I also had to keep in mind that this arrangement is going to be played by trombone players. Even though I was really pushing the instrumentalists to the extremes there was a line I could not cross.
I mentioned that I did not want to rearrange the order of the movements. It only makes sense like as it is in the story and music as well. This is how the piece goes and it should remain like that. The main skeleton of the piece is: start the journey, keep walking, arrive to your destination and come back. This gave me the artistic freedom to decide which movements could be left out from my arrangement of the Alpine Symphony. The recapitulation happened to be a bit different from the original since the Gewitter und Sturm movements were left out. Therefore arrangement has a much calmer ending.
Which motive was the most difficult for you to work with?
I believe the Eintritt in den Wald was quiet difficult because of the chord placements and the complication of the music.
How important was your cooperation with the Szeged Trombone Ensemble while working on the arrangement?
This arrangement was specifically made for the Szeged Trombone Ensemble. In 2015 we had a tour in Hungary when the Alpine Symphony was already scheduled on the program. In the same year (100 years after the premier of the piece) the Szeged Trombone Ensemble also recorded this piece on their first album called New Horizons. In 2015 I was no longer playing in the ensemble, but I was leading their concerts and introduced the pieces in program. Just like a mini music history class. Ever since we uploaded the piece to YouTube I have received an incredible amount of private offers for the arrangement. It makes me very happy and I am very tankful to the Szeged Trombone Ensemble and specifically to Gyorgy Gyivicsan (artistic director of Szeged Trombone Ensemble) for their professional cooperation. They were not afraid of the challenges that I created in the arrangement, they were very supportive and it made move forward to achieve the biggest dream of my life: With two of my good friends I created Saker Music Company, my own publishing company. My arrangements (including the Alpine Symphony) will be published by Saker Music Company in 2018. I am very excited about this and once again big thanks to The Szeged Trombone Ensemble for supporting me and believing me from the very beginning.
Are you planning to arrange other masterpieces by Richard Strauss?
Yes, I have already done Im Abendrot from the Four Last Songs for brass ensemble and soprano solo, and also did Feierlicher Einzug for trombone ensemble, organ and timpani. I have an early trombone octet arrangement of the opening string sextet of Strauss’ Capriccio but it still requires a revision. I really like Strauss’ songs and it has been a dream for a long time to arrange them for symphony orchestra. There is also a lot of potential in the symphonic poems as well. Plenty to choose from!
In Saker Music's Store you can find Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony arranged for seven trombone, euphonium, tuba and percussion by Áron Simon.