Danielle de Niese is hoping to inspire female musicians with a new documentary film. “Unsung Heroines: Danielle de Niese on Forgotten Female Composers,” made for BBC4, will be shown first on June 22.
Danielle notes that she is a woman performing music almost exclusively created by men. In the documentary, the soprano travels from London to the Rhineland and Florence.
“Looking back into history, there are incredible stories of talented women who have changed music but very rarely received the credit,” Danielle says. Many were relegated to the role of muses to more lauded husbands, cast as eccentrics or ignored.
“I was never brought up feeling that being a woman was going to hinder me in any way,” Danielle said at a private showing of the documentary at London’s Soho House. “I was very lucky. I didn’t have that on my radar at all. My parents never told me that because you are woman it will be even harder for you. So in a way I have sort of come through with music as my ace card. I have been singing my whole life and I started classical singing when I was eight, so all my training started at a young age. Probably there have been ways in which I have been held back, but at least my parents didn’t let me know about them as a child. I haven’t come with this thing on my shoulder about what it is to be a woman or a person of mixed heritage or American or 5 foot 5, or whatever the barriers might be. That probably makes me very fortunate indeed.”
Her documentary says that there have been 6,000 female composers, with nearly all of them sidelined by music history.
In the BBC4 film, the acclaimed conductor Marin Alsop warns Danielle that 2018 is a “moment of hope, but we can’t let our guard down.” Alsop became the first woman to conduct a last night of the Proms in 2013.
(The Women in Music Group this month said its research revealed the “inexcusable” fact that just 76 classical concerts among 1,445 planned worldwide in 2018-2019 include at least one piece by a woman.)
De Niese, 39, points to elements of hope: “Marin told me this amazing story about an educational project she is doing in Baltimore. A little girl and a little boy were talking to each other, and the boy said `I would like to be a conductor.’ The girl said, `You can’t do that, because you are not a girl.’ The story does say a lot. It depends on the idea of who the role models are and this is why this show is important. It creates new role models, a historical legacy that people can carry with them and continue.”
The film points out that for centuries, women were only allowed to play the piano. It was thought unacceptable for them to play the violin and as for the cello, “don’t even go there.” This fits with the prevailing mood of the times and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s view that women could never do as well as men.
Hildegard von Bingen was the first named Western composer, female or male, yet was absent from many reference books for 900 years — until about 1979. A CD of her works then sold more than half a million copies.
The name of Francesca Caccini, a composer at the 16th-century Florentine Medici court, was less well known than her wealthy patrons.
In the same way Frida Kahlo was eclipsed in her lifetime by her husband Diego Rivera, so we see Clara Schumann’s legacy being buried alongside her husband Robert Schumann. We are told that he “wanted his tea on the table” and referred to her as “mein hausfrau.”
In the documentary, de Niese joins Mica Paris to sing some work by the composer Florence Price, a black woman from Arkansas who made it to The Proms in the 1950s but is largely forgotten – even with major compositions being found recently.
The film also rediscovers Dame Ethel Smyth and her stunning string quartets. Dame Elizabeth Maconchy, meanwhile, was praised by Vaughan-Williams and Holst before vanishing from view. In one week in 2017, there were more performances of Tchaikovsky’s string quartets than Maconchy’s in the last five years.
Jan Younghusband, commissioning editor for BBC Music TV, said at the preview: “What is extraordinary about this beautiful film is the chilling fact of these women whose work we don’t know.”
She hopes it will be inspirational: “We think it is very important to show young women the history that is behind them. I studied classical music and there were really no women in the history books then. I think we at the BBC have a really important responsibility to speak up about women and make sure it is known. It is the power of radio and television to do that, we certainly are completely committed to that, and we will go on being committed. As Germaine Greer said the other night, ‘They gave us Woman’s Day, that’s one day.’ But it is certainly not the case for us at the BBC. It is every day.”
This film was produced and directed by Guy Evans for Lenny Henry’s company Douglas Road.