Sunday, January 28, 2018

There are no quick fixes for classical music's racism


It is pleasing that the very talented black cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason's debut album has been released by Decca and is receiving the full attention of Universal Classics' spin machine. Sheku Kanneh-Mason's career has also received major support from the BBC: he was winner of the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition and has made a well-deserved well-deserved BBC Proms appearance. So it is appropriate to revisit the BBC's role in the career of another very talented black musician.

Those header and footer images of Rudolph Dunbar are stills taken from a 1962 film on the RTBF/Belgium website. Guyanese-born Rudolph Dunbar wrote the definitive text book on the clarinet and had a flourishing conducting career in the 1940s. He conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and in 1945 became the first black conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. But a 2007 Overgrown Path post profiling him explained how in the post-war period Dunbar's high profile career went into mysterious terminal decline and how in 1988 he died in obscurity in London. Subsequent posts based on contributions from those who knew him alleged that intrigue inside the BBC ended his career. The brief video can be viewed via this link*; the interview is in French, so here is a translation:
- I did my musical studies in Paris, Leipzig and Vienna.
- After these studies, where did you started your career as a conductor ?
- In London, in 1955.
- And since this date ?
- Since that, I did concerts in Paris, Berlin, Yugoslavia, Poland, everywhere on the continent.
- Your last concert ?
- It was in Havana a few weeks ago.
- So you are just back ?
- Yes
- How come you have not performed at say, the Festival Hall?
- Ah ah! I did not want - you understand - to be too well known. But at the time I was becoming very popular. Because of this, there was a campaign against me in London and against me everywhere... I was condemned as an alien....
Rudolph Dunbar was not alone in being condemned as an alien. The story of Dean Dixon, whose career was also blighted by discrimination, has been told here, while Kevin Scott and John McLaughlin Williams have born witness to continuing discrimination within the classical music industry. Credible sources support allegations about the demise of Dunbar's career, and a Guyanese website provides the following perspective:
Why was Dunbar overlooked? There is no clear answer to that question. In an interview he gave six months before his death in 1988, Dunbar, who had previously conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, blamed the BBC and a particular producer/director in the organization for derailing his career. In those days, the BBC was powerful enough to open doors and close doors to people in the arts and music. There may have been other factors as well, given that he was one of a group of West Indians in the UK who campaigned openly against racism and colonialism.
Classical reputations are being sullied by allegations no more substantial than those about the reasons for Rudolph Dunbar's aborted career. Today the BBC has even more power to open and close doors to people in the arts and music. Isn't it time that these disturbing allegations from the not-too-distant past were fully and independently investigated? Isn't it time to widen the definition of abuse to include #BlackMusiciansToo? Sheku Kanneh-Mason's success is a big step forward, but there are no quick fixes for classical music's endemic racism.


* The caption on the RTBF/Belgium website incorrectly identifies Rudolph Dunbar as being Jamaican. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

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