Berlin Philharmonic's first Black conductor
“At a concert this week in Berlin, Berlin's famed 65-year-old Philharmonic Orchestra was led by a U.S. war correspondent in battledress. Besides being a war correspondent, the guest conductor was a Negro, born in British Guiana. The 2,000 Berliners and the 500 Allied soldiers in the audience found it quite an experience. They applauded warmly when the conductor led the orchestra through Weber's familiar Oberon and Tchaikovsky's Pathétique. They broke into cheers, and called him back five times, when he gave them Berlin's first hearing of fellow-Negro William Grant Still's boisterous, bluesy Afro-American Symphony.
Slender, serious Rudolph Dunbar is no musical freshman. He studied at Manhattan's Julliard School, has several times conducted the London Philharmonic. He was in Berlin as correspondent for the Associated Negro Press of Chicago. Shortly before the Berlin Philharmonic's Conductor Leo Borchard was accidentally killed by U.S. sentries, he had invited Dunbar to guest-conduct. U.S. occupation authorities were all for it, though their interest was more in teaching the Germans a lesson in racial tolerance than in Dunbar's musicianship.”
The news story above was published in Time on September 10, 1945 when the career of Rudolph Dunbar was at its peak. Dunbar lived for another forty-three years, but what happened in those years to the first Black musician to conduct the Berlin and London Philharmonic Orchestras is a mystery. The story starts at the turn of the last century in British Guiana (now Guyana). The date of Dunbar’s birth is variously given as 1902 or 1907, and classical music was an unlikely career for a Black Guyanese boy at that time. But the young Dunbar’s interest was sparked by hearing transcriptions of Wagner and Elgar played in Georgetown by the British Guiana Militia Band. He joined the Militia Band as an apprentice clarinettist at the age of 14, and stayed with them for five years.
His talent was such that he left the band when he was 19 to study at the Institute of Musical Art (now the Juilliard) in New York, and lived in the city until he graduated in 1925. His subjects at the Juilliard were composition, clarinet and piano, but he was also active in the Harlem jazz scene, and was clarinet soloist on recordings by The Plantation Orchestra (photo above). While in New York he became a friend and champion of the African-American composer William Grant Still, and their correspondence is held today at the University of Arkansas.
In 1925 Dunbar moved to Paris as a post-graduate, studying conducting with Philippe Gaubert (below), and composition with Paul Vidal and clarinet with Louis Cahuzac. He also spent time with Felix Weingartner in Vienna. Dunbar’s reputation as a clarinettist grew, and reached the widow of Claude Debussy who invited him to give a private recital in her apartment in 1930 for members of the Paris Conservatoire.
Dunbar moved to London in 1931 to work as a music critic, and he also started the first ever clarinet school, which attracted students from around the world. His reputation was such that in 1939 he was commissioned to write a textbook on the clarinet, and his Treatise on the Clarinet (Boehm System) became the standard reference work for the instrument. It remained in print though ten editions, and today commands high prices as a collectors item.
Dunbar remained active as a jazz musician, and in the 1930s in Britain he led two jazz groups, the All British Coloured Band (also known as the Rumba Coloured Orchestra), and Rudolph Dunbar and his African Polyphony, and made pioneering recordings of West Indian music with both these groups. He also composed, and his 1938 ballet score Dance of the Twenty-First Century (described by Dunbar as ‘ultra modern’), which was written for the famous Cambridge University Footlights Club, was broadcast nationally by NBC with the composer conducting.
The outbreak of war in Europe opened up conducting opportunities for Dunbar, and in 1942 he led the London Philharmonic in the Royal Albert Hall in a concert that was described at the time as a fund-raiser for “Britain’s coloured allies”. He wrote for the Associated Negro Press of Chicago, and this gave him credentials as a war correspondent in Europe. He took part in the Normandy Landings with a Black regiment, and was the first foreigner to conduct a symphony orchestra in Paris after it was liberated, and then went on to conduct in Berlin.
In 1945 Dunbar presented a Festival of American Music in the Théatre des Champs Elysees, Paris with the Conservatoire Orchestra and pianist Jeanne-Marie Darré. The programme included the premiere of In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy by William Grant Still (right), as well as Still's Afro-American Symphony. The following year Dunbar made his US conducting debut with the Hollywood Bowl Symphony in a programme that again included Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony. In other concerts he programmed the music of the Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor (photo below).
Dunbar was a pioneering activist against racism. When asked at his US debut if he would settle in the country he replied: “I think I will make my home in Paris where, if you are good, they will applaud you whether you are pink, white or black, and if you are bad they will whistle at you.” But he was also supportive of the US, and objected to the British Government promoting his career for political ends, saying “It is not the British who have done it for me, it is the Americans.”
At the end of the war the promise was immense. Dunbar was established as a leading performer and authority on the clarinet, his conducting career was in the ascendant as concert life restarted, and he was seen as a role-model for West Indians. But the promise wasn’t fulfilled. Dunbar is documented as being the first black conductor of a symphony orchestra in Poland (1959), and Russia (1964), both concerts were in Soviet bloc countries at the peak of the Cold War. He promoted concerts for the Jamaican Hurricane Relief Fund in 1951, and toured British Guiana in the 1950s conducting the country’s Militia Band, Philharmonic Orchestra and a youth choir. Rudolph Dunbar died in London in June 1988.
Were Dunbar's conducting talents simply eclipsed by de-Nazified conductors returning to the podium after the war, or were there other reasons why the promise wasn't fulfilled? Exactly what happened remains a mystery, but there are some tantalising clues. Dunbar's brief obituary in the Musical Times says: 'He gradually withdrew from public life, and devoted himself to fighting racism and trying to increase black involvement in Western art music.
But there seems to be more to it than a gradual withdrawal from public life. It is known that Dunbar conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra. One of the leading authorities on music in Guyana is Dr Vibert C. Cambridge at Ohio University, and in an article for the Stabroek News in Guyana in August 2004 Dr Cambridge quotes from an interview Rudolph Dunbar gave six months before his death in 1988:
“Dunbar spoke about the particular vindictiveness of a producer/director of music at the BBC who derailed his musical career in Europe. Dunbar described that director of music as “despicable and vile” and the BBC “as stubborn as mules and ruthless as rattlesnakes”.
Today Rudolph Dunbar (left) is remembered as a one of a pioneering group of West Indians who fought racism in the UK. The musician who was the first Black conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, and who wrote a standard reference work on the clarinet, does not warrant a single mention in the current or earlier editions of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, or other major music reference books. Why remains a mystery.
* 2011 - important Rudolph Dunbar updates, here, here and here.
* Rudolph Dunbar by Dr Vibert C. Cambridge, Stabroek News August 22, 2004
* W. Rudolph Dunbar: Pioneering Orchestra Conductor, The Black Perspective in Music, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Autumn, 1981), pp. 193-225
* Rudolph Dunbar, The Musical Times, Vol. 129, No. 1749 (Nov., 1988), p. 619
* Debut in the Bowl, Time Sept 02 1946
* Rhythm in Berlin, Time Sept 10 1945
* The Pantheon of West Indian Heroes Framed, Black Britain, July 8 2006.
* Settling Scores: German Music, Denazification, and the Americans, 1945-1953, by David Monod, NewMusicBox Oct 24 2006.
* Listeners to the BBC Radio 4 programme on Rudolph Dunbar broadcast on August 7 2007 should read Echoes of Rudolph Dunbar on the BBC.
(c) Bob Shingleton 2007
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I have contacted Dr Cambridge for more information on the later years of Rudolph Dunbar's career. Other information from readers is very welcome, updates will be published. With thanks to John McLaughlin Williams who read a draft of this article. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included for "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk