Music industry cabal ended a black conductor's career

Guyanese-born Rudolph Dunbar wrote the definitive text book on the clarinet and had a burgeoning conducting career in the 1940s during which 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 decline and how in 1988 he died in obscurity in London. Subsequent posts based on contributions from those who knew him suggested that intrigue inside the BBC ended his career. Now a remarkable video of Rudolph Dunbar talking in 1962 about his professional denouement has become available from RTBF/Belgium. The brief video from which the two still images are taken is in French, so a translation* is provided below. The video** can be viewed via this link. Please watch it even if you do not speak French; because it is an important and moving testament to the institutionalised discrimination that more than 50 years later still blights the classical music industry.
- 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. Because the English do not like competition.

* My thanks go to readers Antoine Leboyer and Edith Guilbaud for help with the transcription and translation.
** The video is erroneously titled 'Jamaicans or second class citizens (Rudolph Dunbar)'. He was in fact Guyanese and was born in what was then British Guiana in 1907.
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Pliable said…
On Facebook Edith Guilbaud comments - 'Cet homme exprime tellement fort la segregation de cette époque... '
Halldor said…
Fascinating story, and it'd be interesting to find out more. It can't have been merely that British classical music at that time had an antipathy to non-British conductors, with posts at the LSO (Monteux), BBCSO (Dorati, following Schwarz), LPO (Steinberg), ROH (Solti), RPO (Kempe), Philharmonia (Klemperer), Bournemouth (Silvestri) all held by eminent non-British musicians and posts at the RLPO (Kurtz, Mehta) and CBSO (Schwarz, Panufnik) only recently vacated by them. Race was clearly a factor but did Cold War politics perhaps also play a role? That he'd performed in Poland, Yugoslavia and Cuba presumably won't have endeared him to certain people.
Pliable said…
Halldor yes, Rudolph Dunbar's activist support for unpopular causes was almost certainly a factor. As my original post in 2007 recounted, 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.
Pliable said…
Kevin Scott emails: 'The even greater crime is that we have no video or audio recordings (to my knowledge) of Dunbar's conducting. Truly the British had something against him.'
Pliable said…
Kevin, there is actually a recording of Rudolph Dunbar playing the clarinet - in a black hot jazz group!
Pliable said…
My original article about Rudolph Daunbar was published On An Overgrown Path in April 2007, and was the first major article about him published outside Guyana since his death in 1988. Four months later BBC Radio 4 broadcast 'The Strange Story of Rudolph Dunbar' presented by Wayne Marshall. The BBC programme had striking similarities to my article that could not have been coincidental, but no credit was given to sources. (The next time BBC Radio 4 produced a documentary based on my posts they adopted a different approach. When they made 'The Colour of Genius' based on the posts by me and John McLaughlin Williams about Philippa Schuyler, they asked my permission, credited me, and used John as a contributor and included the piano recordings he made for OAOP).

'The Strange Story of Rudolph Dunbar' documentary contained no new material, despite Rudolph Dunbar having conducted BBC orchestras, and despite the allegations from several sources that the BBC played a role in derailing his career. Given the content of this newly uncovered interview, and given the absence of any recordings of Dunbar as a conductor, is it too much to ask that the BBC now devote some of their considerable resources to searching for documentary and recorded material relating to him?
Philip Amos said…
I must agree with Halldor. However, I also wonder why Dunbar chose to settle in London. He went to Paris after graduating from Julliard, and there Debussy's widow arranged for him to give a private recital before teachers from the Conservatoire. He was a great success in France, and there we know a number of African-American performers settled and were welcome. Another odd turn is that he was a distinguished war correspondent during WWII -- for the U.S. What particularly caught my attention is a passage in an article in Guyanese Online:

The colonial government voted to give five thousand pounds to Dunbar to show their appreciation to him for "contributions to the Empire". At his American debut, British cameras couldn't get enough of Dunbar. This led him to remark that "they want to show these films in the colonies and say 'look what we have done for Dunbar' -- but it is not the British who have done this for me, it is the Americans."

The chronology is unclear in that article, but I must think that he made that remark not long after the War. I cannot know how widely spread that remark was, but if it came to the attention of the 'powers that were' in London, it may, if only in part, explain his fate there. I sense that his story in total is unusually interesting, and not just his life in music. I note, e.g., his record as a war correspondent and also his work with Learie Constantine [great Trinidadian cricketer, also lawyer and politician, later Lord Constantine] meliorating the lives of black workers in munitions factories. Beyond doubt, he deserves a biography and a good one!

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