September 17, 1999, Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Conductor Mariss Jansons was bringing to a close the monumental "Gurrelieder" of Arnold Schonberg. The massive orchestra, choirs and organ were sounding the loudest non-electronically-generated "C-Major" chord that I have ever heard. The room was "being" C-Major, and every person in the audience spontaneously rose to their feet in a most genuine and appreciative standing ovation. After a six-hour drive, and a fine meal in a good restaurant, composer Ernesto Pellegrini and I had the good fortune of being in the audience of that memorable performance. The audience clapped and cheered for minute after minute. Some applauded because "everyone else" did. Some, because it was a truly extraordinary sound that they had just finished hearing. Others, because they were amazed that "the 12-tone composer" Schonberg had written music that actually didn't sound "weird." And still others, because they imagined that they had just experienced something of "cultural worth" and so were supposed to acknowledge their appreciation. Pellegrini, however, seemed to be in a thoughtful world of his own, just then: pleased, appreciative, participating in the tradition of post-performance applause, yes, but also, at the same time, UNDERSTANDING what he had just heard. The sonic structure of "Gurrelieder" borders on the unfathomable. Yet, I had the distinct impression that Pellegrini had just been in some sort of deep communion with Schonberg himself, and that the music of Schonberg had been a gift from the composer just for Pellegrini.
Ernesto Pellegrini first gained national exposure as a composer in April, 1967, when his "Seven Statements in 3/4 Time" was chosen by The Rockefeller Foundation for performance on a concert of new music in New Orleans. He has remained compositionally active and a champion of new music ever since. I met Ernie as a colleague at Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, when I first began teaching there in 1992. Over the next dozen years, my respect for him as a composer, as a listener, as one who comprehends music in a multi-faceted way, and as a really decent human being has continually increased. I am very glad now to have this occasion to depict Ernie Pellegrini for readers interested in contemporary composers.
Ernesto Pellegrini was born in New York in 1932. However, by the age of five and a half, he was sent to his extended family's home in Italy, where he began attending elementary school. By the late 1930s, it became clear that Pellegrini would be forced to remain in Italy, because of World War II, and he remained a student there through his early high school years. Indeed, he did not return to America until 1947, but during his time in Italy, Pellegrini developed a love for opera, and especially for Verdi, and this particular love has remained with him ever since.
Upon returning to The United States, Pellegrini attended American high school, and read voraciously on many subjects, especially music. He graduated from high school in 1950 and worked at odd jobs to earn money. The train to work could be an hour long, each way, and Pellegrini would use the time to continue reading about music. After two years, he felt that he might be ready to attempt to "get in" to a college music program. Of course, because of his talent, he did "get in", and, from 1952 to 1957, he attended The Juilliard School of Music.
Pellegrini's first composition teacher at Juilliard was Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966). For one year, under the instruction of Giannini, Pellegrini composed many small pieces in a tonal language and with well-constructed form. After that, and in complete contrast, Pellegrini then studied with Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987), who wanted the student to "find himself" by trying out just about anything and everything. I have a vivid memory of Ernie describing to me his studies with Persichetti; the sentence "Do what you want!" seemed to be the dominant theme at that point in Pellegrini's musical education.
After graduating from Juilliard in 1957 with a B.S. in composition, Pellegrini "played it safe," relative to that time period, by composing mostly "neo-classical" music. It was at this point that Pellegrini entered the army. From 1957 until 1959, his military obligations would postpone much in the way of further musical studies. One interesting long-term compositional benefit for Pellegrini, however, concerns the timing of his enlistment's ending. He left the army in November of 1959, and, of course, this month is not an optimal month for beginning a new graduate program at a college or university. So, Pellegrini returned to Italy for almost ten months and studied composition with the eminent Italian composer, Boris Porena (b. 1927), in Rome. It is with Porena that Pellegrini learned of the avant garde within the world of composition. He avidly studied various serial procedures with Porena, and these studies left their mark on the young composer from that point on.
In 1960, Pellegrini became a graduate student at Juilliard. Before earning the M.S. in composition in 1961, Pellegrini won 2nd Prize in the "Rheta A. Sosland Competition" for his String Quartet, which was written for his masters thesis.
After Juilliard, Pellegrini left New York to take up his first teaching position in Knoxville, Tennessee. As with most beginning faculty, his course load was quite heavy and he did not have much time for composing. It was here, however, that Pellegrini met a young new professor of English, Trudy, and in 1963 Ernie and Trudy were married. Over the subsequent years, they have raised two sons and a daughter, and have maintained a home in which guests always feel warmly welcome, as I personally can attest from many such visits.
In the summers of 1965 and 1966, Pellegrini attended summer school at the University of Iowa, where he commenced work on his Ph.D in composition. From 1968 until 1969, he was in residence at U. of I., and there he studied composition with Philip Bezanson (1916-1975) and Richard Hervig (b. 1917). During 1968, Pellegrini was awarded a prestigious position as an "IBM Graduate Fellow," and, in 1970, he won a "First Honorable Mention" in the "L. M. Gottschalk International Competition" for his "Piano Variations" (which will soon be available through Jomar Press). Pellegrini completed his doctoral studies in 1971.
It was in 1971 that Pellegrini began his 30-year career as a music professor at Ball State University, in Muncie, Indiana. At that point, he also became a very active composer in the organization which is now called "The Society of Composers, Inc." (SCI). (Most recently, in 2001, Pellegrini hosted the "SCI Region V Annual Conference" at Ball State.) After experimenting with Serial Techniques and Neo-Classicism, Pellegrini's style from the mid-1960s into the 1970s evolved into a more personal sort of musical communication. His recent music is characterized by a mixture of "freedom of expression" with an underlying large arsenal of technical know-how. I am particularly impressed with his piece, "Serenata a tre" (1984), for A-clarinet, cello and harp, which can be found on the 1995 CRS recording, "Albumleaf," (CRS #9358).
Some other of Pellegrini's important compositions written while at BSU include "Scylla and Charybdis" (1993) for cello and orchestra; "Poeme" for alto saxophone and chamber orchestra (Sentinel Dome Publication, 1999); and his numbered compositions for various instruments called "Movement" or "Duolog." His music has been presented by performers such as Dmitry Sitkovetsky, violin soloist with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, 1987 (Pellegrini's Violin Concerto); and Mitchell Andrews, piano soloist with the Muncie Symphony Orchestra, 1991 (Pellegrini's Piano Concerto). Many of Pellegrini's pieces from this period were inspired by some aspect of Italian folklore, and we now see the composer becoming more interested in his own Italian roots.
Pellegrini's awards include the 1975 first prize of the "Arizona Cello Society" for his composition, "Divertimento a tre." Also, his "Movement III," for piano, was performed as a "new unpublished work" in 1978 in the "John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts International Competition for the Excellence in the Performance of American Music." In 1980, Pellegrini was a winner of the "League-ISCM National Composers Competition" for his piece, "Divertimento a sette," and he was a "Charles Ives Center for American Music Fellow" in that same year. He has been an ASCAP "Panel Award" recipient each year since 1984, and he has been listed in "International Who's Who In Music" (11th, 12th, and 13th editions).
In addition to composing and teaching, Pellegrini has published the articles "A Progressive Approach to Music Theory Instruction," "Music Now," (Jan. 1974), 1-3; and "A Tribute to Luigi Dallapiccola," "Music Now," (May 1976), 3-4. He also presented the paper "Dallapiccola: A Composer's View," at the ASUC Region IV Conference at Memphis State University in February, 1985. Also notable is his unpublished paper from 1969, "The Evolution of Twelve-Tone Music in Italy: 1900-1950."
Since 2001, Pellegrini has been "professor emeritus" at Ball State University, and he has remained compositionally quite active. His choral composition, "For Robert," was performed on April 12, 2003 at Central Washington University. This work was written as a memorial for a relative of Pellegrini that died in the World Trade Center in 2001 during the 9/11 Tragedy. The piece was listed as being given "Honors" by the people who created the project "Waging Peace Through Singing." Also, Pellegrini's "Movement X: Arianna's Piece," for clarinet, was awarded at the CRS National Competition in 2004; it will soon be performed and recorded by clarinetist John Russo and will become available on the CRS label.
I met Ernie Pellegrini at the time that he was entering the final third of his career at Ball State University. I have been impressed by his musical integrity, his vast knowledge of music, and his obvious love of music. His BSU performer colleagues have always played his works with a great respect for the music, and have demonstrated their respect for Pellegrini by the care and attention to detail that they always gave during their preparation for a "Pellegrini performance." During one winter of the late 1990s, Pellegrini was bringing his just-completed parts for a new work for a very large ensemble, "The Burghers of Calais" (based on the Rodin statue), to the office of a BSU conductor, just in time to meet an agreed upon deadline. While walking on the icy sidewalk, carrying his large box of parts, Pellegrini slipped and fell and broke his hip. A colleague happened upon him and wanted to go immediately to call for medical help, but Pellegrini insisted that, first, would the colleague please take the box of his parts to the conductor's office, so that his deadline could be met. I have always marveled that Pellegrini, at that moment, cared more about his composition than even the pain he was surely feeling. In fact, I think that this might be the true definition of a composer. Ernesto Pellegrini is a true composer.
Dr. Jody Nagel (b. 1960)
August 1, 2004
Ball State University, Associate Professor of Music Theory and Composition
D.M.A. (1992) The University of Texas at Austin
M.A. (1985) The University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
B.A. (1982) Marietta College, Ohio