Feature: Daniel Crozier's "With Blood, With Ink," A Past NOA Chamber Opera Competition Winner
The idea began with Krask’s proposal to Crozier that they write a short opera on his eighteen-page libretto. After Crozier agreed to what he expected to be about a twenty-minute opera, Krask made some revisions and returned with a fifty-two-page libretto. Though the task seemed more daunting, Crozier began composing, and after two-years, completed the work which runs as a long one-act — ninety minutes.
The powerful story of Sor Juana is well-known in Mexico, if not in the United States. The opera introduces this formidable historical character to modern audiences. Educated to read, write and think, young Juana was known to debate the learned men at court — and win. When she refuses to marry, the men of the church decide the best life for her would be in a convent. Once she understands that she will be allowed to continue her studies and writings, she agrees to go. As life continues at the convent, Padre Antonio criticizes the young woman’s attention to her studies. When she tries to discuss her work with him, he becomes angry. A visiting Countess, Maria Luisa comes to tell her the court will be returning to Spain but promises to publish Sor Juana’s work in Europe. As Sor Juana writes an introduction for her volume, she wonders why she should be treated differently than men with regard to her writing. Later the Archbishop visits the convent and demands that Sor Juana renounce her work. Given little choice, she eventually does. She cuts herself and signs in blood the agreement that she will no longer speak or write about her faith and her beliefs.
Composer Philip Seward recently took time to sit down with Daniel Crozier to explore his interests in composing opera and sacred music.
Sacred In Opera: Who are some of your Favorite Poets and writers who have inspired your work in the theatre and in music?
Dan Crozier: In poetry, my tastes vary widely. A few of my strong interests have been Wordsworth, Dickinson, Sitwell, Merton, Carlos Williams, Lorca, Machado, and Neruda, as well as Sor Juana herself. Musically, I would say my strongest influences are probably found in the early nineteenth century: Schubert through Chopin, extending to Mahler and Fauré, have been important for the study of controlling mood with its very subtle gradations, and for pacing, which is so important. There are a lot of others too, like Stravinsky, Ravel, Berg, and American composers of the twentieth century who have helped me in many other ways. Jack Beeson comes to mind as a wonderful composer of opera. Other operatic influences…I think Mozart, Verdi, Britten and Tippett most.
SIO: How would you describe yourself as a composer or more generally speaking, as an artist?
DC: I’m a slow, methodical composer, completing a little bit at a time. It’s a painstaking process, but if you work that way, you can build something large over time: one phrase, one line, one scene at a time…that sort of thing.
SIO: Would you say you have trouble with compositional unity over a large work then?
DC: No, but it’s a big challenge. I’m always concerned with it. I think that’s part of what makes my process take so long. I’m always thinking about the big picture while I’m working on small bits, trying to maintain a bird’s eye view all the time. I don’t necessarily work in order either. For this opera, I began by writing the big moments and later worked out the connecting material. I had a network of thematic ideas from the start that made their way through the whole piece. This opera uses a lot of Gregorian Chant. Two of the chant melodies in particular, which appear symbolically, in addition to a network of leitmotifs associated with characters and ideas, weave their way through the entire opera.
SIO: How would you describe the sound of your music?
DC: Well, in all my music, not just opera, I’m after two things, elegance and drama. They are the qualities most interesting to me. I guess those two values seesaw back and forth in terms of prominence… at different times in any given piece. Although my music is quite chromatic, I love tonality. Now there are moments that are frankly atonal in this opera, when the dramatic situation demanded that, but even then, my ear attempts to perceive through a tonal lens. I would say that the music of composers I mentioned earlier, those from the early nineteenth-century in particular, guide my aesthetic quite a bit, even though no one would mistake this opera for music of that period.
SIO: Are you speaking of traditional tonality or also pitch-centric music?
DC: Pitch-centered music, but I think traditional tonal relations govern a lot of emotional direction even when they are not explicit in a functional sense. I think tonal areas and the large-scale use of tonality can impact the audience’s perceptions. Mozart was the greatest master of this.
SIO: When is writing difficult for you?
DC: All the time…every day. You always think you can do better. You always try to make something the best it can be, and you always worry that maybe it can still be a little better than it is. What I find is that inspiration from the material itself often propels the process forward. Peter Krask’s libretto is very poetic. He managed to use the main character’s own words, since she was a brilliant writer. He weaved her writing into the libretto in ingenious ways. So, the text can drive me forward, but often it’s something about the musical materials themselves, and their potential, that energizes the compositional process. Ravel spoke of this.
SIO: What time of day do you generally write?
DC: Whenever I’m free is when I work. So, I do a lot late at night because there aren’t distractions then, but if I get breaks between classes, I’ll steal a few minutes for work during the daytime.
SIO: What are you working on right now?
DC: Right now I’m working on movements for a concerto for two clarinets and orchestra — a double concerto. Part of it was premiered last summer. I wrote a large movement and a smaller one. The players are going to present it again this summer, so I’m working on two additional short movements.
SIO: Was that a commission?
DC: Yes, that was a commission from a husband and wife team, William Hudgins (principal clarinet of the Boston Symphony) and his wife Catherine, also a fantastic player. They wanted more music that they could play together. There isn’t very much in the repertoire.
SIO: Who are the librettists you work with? Do you work with several or only Peter?
DC: I have only worked with Peter, and our mutual teacher, Roger Brunyate. Roger was director of the opera department at the Peabody Conservatory, and he wrote the libretti for my first two operas, a short piece called Leaving Home, which represented my first operatic project, followed by a one-act, titled The Reunion. It was a wonderful libretto, and the project went very well. A year or two later, Peter approached Roger, asking if he could suggest a composer for him to work with. Roger proposed that we collaborate. That’s how we got connected to work on this.
SIO: Is your recent work different from With Blood, With Ink?
DC: It’s been some time… a lot of things are the same… things I’ve talked about in terms of elegance and drama are still my priorities. Perhaps the harmonic language and expressive range have broadened a bit.
SIO: Do you do your own orchestrations?
DC: I do. Yes, I don’t want anyone else to touch it really. I don’t do my own typesetting, however.
SIO: Oh really, so you work with pen and ink?
DC: I do. I have a couple of former students whom I trust to help me with getting scores and parts together.
SIO: Where are you from?
DC: I’m from Pennsylvania originally. I grew up near Philadelphia. My father worked as an archaeologist at Temple University. I went to Westminster College and from there to Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore where I met Peter.
SIO: What were some of your influences growing up?
DC: I started as a pianist. So I think my interest in the early nineteenth century comes from that repertoire I knew early and well. I played a lot of that music. I think a lot of our early influences remain strong — the things that attracted us to music at the start. I began writing piano music almost exclusively through my later teens. During my undergraduate years I started writing for other forces, and realized I was very interested in vocal music, and in the orchestra, too.
SIO: What are some of the hurdles you have had to face along the way?
DC: The realities of the world of new music are quite a hurdle. I think we find our own ways to negotiate that, getting performances and so on. Opera is a favorite medium, but I haven’t written another since this piece, which was a long time ago now. I’ve found ways to use my operatic thinking in instrumental music. Truth be told, I think of all my music as operatic. I think of scenes and characters even in instrumental pieces. Opera is so difficult to get performed, and so expensive. So, it’s hard to think of writing another opera without a commission. In the meantime, I’m content to write my own sort of operas without words.
SIO: What are some of your latest artistic obsessions — areas of interest for future works?
DC: I’m very excited about a piano concerto I’m planning based on paintings from the late Renaissance and early Baroque. It resonates with this opera actually in terms of subject matter. I have quite a few sketches completed. I hadn’t written any concerto pieces before this double clarinet concerto. About the same time I began that piece a pianist approached me about the possibility of a piano concerto. I also have a brass quintet to write, and I love text, so I’d like to do some more song settings. I’ve written a good many art songs, quite a few since the time of the opera. The most recent was an Emily Dickenson set, but I’d like to do more.
SIO: Would you say you were a born composer?
DC: Probably. It goes back a long way. I think there are two kinds of composers represented by the Mozart model and the Beethoven model. I’m definitely on the Beethoven side — meaning that the work comes, but with effort.
SIO: Are you a confessional composer?
DC: One of my favorite composers is Robert Schumann who might be the most confessional composer of all. I’ve been very attracted to his music. I think a lot more composers are confessional than meet the eye. I’ve used symbols in music a lot — opera allows one to do so easily, but I’ve done it elsewhere, too. I keep secrets — like Chopin did. I seldom reveal what it’s about. I have an orchestra piece titled, A Tale After the Brothers Grimm, and everybody always asks which fairytale. But I don’t say because I think it’s more fun to imagine. I am certainly a confessional composer, but a guarded one.
SIO: What is your music yearning to discover, to answer, to give us?
DC: I think we want music to provide an emotional discourse that can resonate with our own experience. I think that’s when music is most successful — when it can resonate with someone’s particular psychological journey.
SIO: Why focus on sacred music-drama as a form? What was your interest in this genre within the larger family of music drama?
DC: As far as the sacred subject matter… chant especially is really interesting to me. I love chorales, too. A lot of the music of the church is so beautiful. That was one of the attractive features of this particular piece. Though I wrote the opera before I ever taught anything, I now enjoy teaching sixteenth-century counterpoint very much. I enjoy spending time with students on that literature. It’s an inspiration.
SIO: Was there something that drew you to this particular story?
DC: I think two things: one, the music of the church which we’ve mentioned. The other is the beautiful poetry of the heroine, Sor Juana. It is simply gorgeous writing. I’m always inspired by beautiful poetry.
SIO: What would you say are opportunities or insights you have found that can derive from this form of communication— the dramatization of sacred or transcendental stories and ideas?
DC: I think opportunities to create further works; spiritual growth for oneself; further investigation into how art relates to life- How art, meaning, and our existence come together.
SIO: Particularly thinking about sacred operas… so many are written to speak to the violence of the contemporary world. Do you think that these kinds of works are simply telling a story or do they reflect on ethical and moral issues?
DC: Oh, they definitely do. This story, old as it is, is still timely because human nature is the same in any period. There’s a lot in this piece that speaks to our conditions today.
SIO: Clearly in the twentieth-century Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan-Williams and others — Americans as well— were drawn to sacred opera. Do you think besides the composers and librettists we’ve already talked about, there are reasons that might draw you to a sacred source going forward? Would the sacred aspect draw you to a project or would it really be about the story that may just happen to have a sacred aspect?
DC: The sacred aspect would interest me. I am a person of faith myself, and I like to reflect that where I can artistically. We have callings and I need to do what I am able. I agree with Stravinsky where this is concerned.
SIO: Do you think that the setting of sacred topics can breathe new life into those spiritual topics especially in our age of secularization and industrialization?
DC: Oh sure, it can. I think that it is naturally challenging for people of our time to relate to abstract concepts and distant eras. However, an opera can make remote events seem very present and relevant indeed, provided the characters’ experiences resonate with those of an audience. Peter has drawn the characters so well in this piece that audiences are always engaged.
SIO: Do you have any compositional or production suggestions that you would offer as guidelines for writing and then consequently staging in a church or sacred space? Things that you might be concerned about because of the space?
DC: You mean in terms of dealing with institutions or just in terms of practicality of performance?
SIO: Both, I guess. You were produced by Fort Worth Opera House.
DC: Yes, we were. It wasn’t in a sacred space, though their set design was spectacular. The piece has been performed in sacred spaces too, however.
SIO: So are there issues related to staging in a sacred space that might be important to think about in terms of composition or production?
DC: Rollins College, where I teach in Winter Park, Florida, produced the piece in their chapel, as did Bucknell University. The late Richard Owens (founder of both AIMS and Musiktheater Bavaria in Germany) produced it at Rollins. There were issues because of the space such as where to put the orchestra — practical things. We built a platform. But it was incredible, because the chapel in which it was performed provided a backdrop of ready-made scenery. It made it far less expensive.
SIO: Aside from those points already mentioned, are there other aspects not yet mentioned that could help church music directors, composers, and producers build a case for the support of Sacred Opera from congregants, clergy, and leaders within sacred spaces?
DC: I would say that those types of pieces can provide new ways of communicating to their congregants as well as drawing interest from the wider community. They can certainly function as a kind of ministry.
SIO: Where will your work go from here? For those who are interested, where may we acquire the score and materials?
DC: The work is self-published, so I provide the orchestral score, vocal score, and instrument parts as needed. This past semester, Christine Brandes produced scenes from the piece at San Francisco State University. Last year, Third Eye Ensemble in Chicago produced it.
SIO: Before we go, is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to say?
DC: You didn’t broach the subject, but people often ask, “Did you intend this opera to be an indictment of the Catholic church?” Most certainly not. That wasn’t Peter’s nor my intent. It’s a commentary on the times for sure, but I think it’s important to remember that Sor Juana, notwithstanding her extraordinary vision, and her very real differences with her clerical superiors, remained steadfast in her faith despite everything.
About the Contributor:
Philip Seward has worked internationally as a composer, conductor, pianist, tenor and teacher. In 2017, his singspiel High Fidelity was produced at the Royal George in Chicago; in 2013, his chamber opera How To Date A Coloratura, was named one of three finalists at the National Opera Association Chamber Opera Competition. The world renowned Lyric Opera of Chicago commissioned works that include, Stone Soup, A Noteworthy Tale, and African Stories. These operas were produced in Chicago, Toledo Opera, Memphis Opera, and Pensacola Opera among others. The Lira Ensemble of Chicago also commissioned works including Blessing, on the 25th anniversary of the papacy of John Paul II, which premiered live on WFMT radio. Another piece for chorus and orchestra, Sonnet, was performed at the Chicago’s Symphony Center.
Upcoming recording releases include How To Date A Coloratura and The Rose Prologues both with soprano Patrice Boyd and conductor Gregory Buchalter. His other albums include The Piano Album: Songs from Atonality, The Holiday Album: Songs from Atonality, Juan Peron's Hand, Home, Hans Brinker, and Les Dames à trios...et piano.
Philip Seward received the Excellence in Teaching Award during his work at Columbia College Chicago. He also serves as Music Director at Epiphany United Church of Christ in Chicago. Seward holds degrees from Wabash College, Northwestern University, and the University of Salford.
Mr. Seward’s publisher for choral music is Porfiri & Horvath. Other music is available through his website at: www.philipseward.com