New Brunswick

Saint John woman publishes book she has wanted to write for 70 years

Ninety-year-old E. Elizabeth Cran has wanted to write an English language biography of the Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti since her university days. The book has been published and she now says she is "unofficially retired."

Now 90, E. Elizabeth Cran has written a biography of Italian composer who inspired her as a child

E. Elizabeth Cran, 90, of Saint John has been inspired by Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti since she was a child. Now she has published a biography of him. (Submitted)

For Saint John's Elizabeth Cran, her latest book is the culmination of a lifetime of work.

For most of her 90 years, the Chipman, N.B.-born author has been fascinated with the life and music of 19th-century opera composer Gaetano Donizetti.

It started with a trip to the library.

"When I was a child, I took out a library book, Lives of the Great Composers," Cran said in a phone call from her assisted living residence on Saint John's west side.

And what was it about Donizetti that caught her attention?

Cran said she first became interested in Donizetti after taking out a library book about the lives of the great composers. She said he likely impressed her more than the others because 'he was a handsome man.' (Wikimedia)

"Well, I'm embarrassed to mention this, but it's true. He was a handsome man," she said matter-of-factly.

In his day, Donizetti was one of the most famous and influential composers in Europe, and he had a profound effect on the work of his contemporaries, especially Guiseppe Verdi.

Donizetti brought more action and drama to the opera stage and helped perfect what would be known as the European Romantic movement, composing operas about historic figures like Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and Lucrezia Borgia. 

But it was his comic romantic operas that brought him his greatest successes, including Don Pasquale, the story of a man's efforts to keep his son from marrying a woman of a different social class.

"When I was 18, for my birthday, my father got me the complete Don Pasquale on 78 RPM records," Cran said.

That stoked her interest in Donizetti even more, and after being awarded a scholarship to attend Radcliffe College, the then all-female partner institution to Harvard University, she was excited to discover the library had a collection of the composer's letters.

A portrait of the composer by Francesco Coghetti. Donizetti achieved great fame in his day, but the last years of his life were marred by poor physical and mental health brought on by a syphilis infection, combined with his unwillingness to stop working. (Wikimedia)

Since there really wasn't a biography of Donizetti written in English, Cran said, she "wanted to write that book."

It helped that she showed a propensity to learn other languages, said her daughter, Alison Cran.

"My mother speaks and writes Italian, Latin, Greek, French and English. She actually taught language as well."

Cran even visited the composer's tomb in Bergamo, Italy, at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in 1960, but she still hadn't found the time to put the words to paper.

She was also writing other things, including regular book reviews for local newspapers, publishing two volumes of poetry, and writing a book about the small town of Tignish, P.E.I., where she lived for many years. It tried to answer the question of why some small towns succeed while other communities fail.

Cran said she worked on the book off and on for about 50 years but really began focusing on it in the past 10 years. (New World Publishing)

She also wrote a history of the co-op movement on P.E.I. 

"It was all in my head, but I was earning a living, too, and I had two children," Cran said.

So she worked away "off and on for 50 or more years, until the last 10 years or so," when she said she began to focus on completing the project.

She said she was pleased to finish the book, but it was much more satisfying to see it in print..

"I don't get thrilled easily, but I was thrilled when my publisher sent me the book."

Cran said she stopped writing book reviews five years ago, when the newspaper she wrote for decided to go with a syndicated column.

And with the publication of The Man Behind The Music: The Life of Donizetti, she said, she's "unofficially retired" as a writer.

"At 90," her daughter added.

The Man Behind The Music: The Life of Donizetti by E. Elizabeth Cran is available from New World Publishing in Halifax.  

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