Good enough for the Berlin Philharmonic but not for the BBC

That evocative photo above shows Rudolph Dunbar in the US war correspondent battledress he wore in 1945 when he became the first black conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. The photo* appears in an article on the website of San Francisco classical station KDFC. This article is linked to my 2007 post which first drew attention to the remarkable story of Rudolph Dunbar who was born in British Guiana, now Guyana, in South America. Subsequent posts by me highlighted the disturbing allegations that Dunbar's career was derailed by a a 'producer/director' of music at the BBC. KDFC picks up this theme and concludes by saying 'To this day, there is still mystery surrounding Dunbar’s blacklisting from concert appearances. Although for Dunbar, it wasn’t mystery, it was racism'.

But now the fate of Rudolph Dunbar is no longer a mystery. Because while preparing this new post I discovered research from the BBC archives that details how the Guyanese conductor's career was derailed. This research was carried out by Professor Wendy Webster of the University of Huddersfield and is published in her 2018 book 'Mixing It: Diversity in World War Two Britain' which provides the primary source for this article. This new information is of great importance: because the story of Rudolph Dunbar's demise is as relevant today as it was 70 years ago.

Prof. Webster explains how after an Albert Hall concert in 1942 the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies and future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan gave a lunch in Dunbar's honour. (Was this the concert with the London Philharmonic when he became the orchestra's first black conductor?**) Following the lunch an article was published in the Sunday Express by Bernard Bracken, Minister of Information; this was headlined 'Colour bar must go' and opened with the sentence 'Mr. Rudolph Dunbar has asked me to write an article about the Colour Bar'.

At this time Dunbar worked closely with the Colonial Office to provide positive coverage of efforts in Britain to suppress racism. One example was an article written for the Associated Negro Press headlined 'Men and Women of Colour Rise to Prominence in England' which took the optimistic view that 'there is a real effort being made on the part of the heads of government departments to abolish colour prejudice and to employ West Indians and Africans in positions worthy of their intellectual attainments and capacities'. Dunbar was adopted by the Colonial Office and BBC as a poster boy of racial integration, and was used to counter allegations of colonialism. As an example, below is a page from a 1943 Radio Times listing a talk by Rudolph Dunbar on the BBC Home Service titled 'Colour Bar'.

As a result of this exposure the head of publicity at the Colonial Office wrote to the BBC proposing that Dunbar should be invited to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and supported this proposal by citing the conductor's successes with London orchestras and with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. But not only did the BBC not take up the Colonial Office's suggestion of guest conducting work, but following an interview with Dunbar in August the unnamed BBC Director of Music noted: 'Partly, I believe through the insistence of the Ministry of Information his musical talents have been praised by the press on political grounds out of proportion to his actual achievements, and this has given him an inflated idea of his actual achievements'. More seriously the unnamed Deputy Director of Music wrote the following to Radiodiffusion Française in 1946, the emphasis is mine.
[Rudolph Dunbar] is from the West Indies and a British subject,and the reason why he got so much encouragement and support during the war was that he represented the West Indies in our Ministry of Information. Recently he seems to have devoted his programmes to American music*** - hence, I presume the similar support from the American press. It is a pity he cannot conduct, because he must have done harm rather than good to the cause of the coloured people. He was a clarinet player - but again not quite good enough to play the interesting pieces he offered - and I think he was always more at home with a band than an orchestra.
Just like today, the BBC wielded huge influence in the classical music world. These were not private observations: the statements that "It is a pity he cannot conduct" and that he was a mediocre clarinet player were made, presumably, in response to a query from Radiodiffusion Française who were considering giving Dunbar work, and similar views were almost certainly propagated elsewhere. These are damning words, so the allegations that senior BBC executives derailed Rudolph Dunbar's career is correct. At this point we must consider the argument that the BBC judgement was correct and that Dunbar could not conduct and was only an average clarinet player. Was his celebrated Berlin Philharmonic appearance just a politically expedient shoo-in by the Americans?

Sadly, precisely because his career was stymied, there are no recordings from which we can judge Rudolph Dunbar's skill as a conductor. But there is fairly convincing evidence from his track record that his reputation was deserved. Today the all-powerful agent network means conductors of questionable talent can be shood-in to prestigious concerts. But not so in the 1940s; times were very hard and finding work as a conductor - irrespective of your colour - must have been even harder. Dunbar conducted the London Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestras, bands that do not suffer fools gladly. In their proposal to the BBC the Colonial Office noted that Dunbar had 'scored a considerable success' conducting at the Albert Hall and with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Below is the programme for Rudolph Dunbar's appearance in a 1942 concert series by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The other two conductors in the series showed the exalted company that Dunbar was keeping on the podium - the Ukrainian Anatole Fistoulari who was principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, and the acclaimed but capricious master of Wagner's music Reginald Goodall. Below is the repertoire for Dunbar's concert (Rawicz and Landauer played light items for piano duet either side of the interval):
Weber: Overture 'Oberon'
Coleridge-Taylor: Petite Suite de Concert Op 77
Dvořák: Symphony No 9 'From the New World'

It is easier to refute the verdict that Rudolph Dunbar's mastery of the clarinet was "not quite good enough". He played jazz clarinet soloist with The Plantation Orchestra and can be heard on archive recordings. While studying in Paris he was invited by Debussy's widow to give a clarinet recital in her home; then in 1931 when he settled in London he founded the Rudolph Dunbar School of Clarinet Playing and wrote columns on technique for the Melody Maker for seven years. In 1939 he wrote his 'Treatise on the Clarinet (Boehm System)', which became and remains a standard text about the instrument for both jazz and classical players.

But despite clear evidence of a remarkable talent, Machiavellian machinations within the BBC irreparably damaged Rudolph Dunbar's career. While compiling this article I uncovered the photo below of him. It was taken for a City Limits magazine interview in 1986; this was two years before Dunbar died in obscurity and to my knowledge it has not been published since. The interview tells how at the age of 79 Dunbar was still studying scores for 40 hours a week, but had no opportunity to conduct them. Look at the first photo above showing a man with the classical music world at his feet. Now look at the photo below showing a broken bitter man. That is what ignorance and racism does.

We must not let the sabotaging of Rudolph Dunbar's career become a mere footnote in history, because history has a habit of repeating itself. Rudolph Dunbar was exploited as a diversity poster boy by the BBC when it suited them, and he was subsequently discarded ruthlessly and dishonestly. Today the stranglehold of the BBC on classical music in Britain is even greater. Admirable progress has been made in giving female conductors their rightful place on the podium. But considerably less progress has been made in giving musicians of colour similar recognition. But there are exceptions - a few poster boys and girls who are opportunistically being given high media profiles to prove there is ethnic diversity within the art form. Racism is a systemic disease that has ravaged classical music for decades, and continues to ravage it. The BBC's deplorable treatment of Rudolph Dunbar is an important case study for classical music in the 21st century. Because, in the words usually attributed to writer and philosopher George Santayana, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

* Header photo is © Van Vechten Trust/Beinecke Library.
** This concert prompted the Nazi propaganda radio masterminded by Joseph Goebbels to highlight how Britain's 'low cultural level' was exemplified by the promotion of a black conductor.
** Presumably music by William Grant Still. Dunbar conducted the composer's Symphony No. 1 'Afro-American' at his Berlin concert.

My deep appreciation goes to Professor Wendy Webster, without her research and book the solving of the mystery of Rudolph Dunbar would not have been possible. My thanks also go to John McLaughlin Williams who continues to inspire on this important subject. Deep appreciation also goes to another very important native of Guyana in my life - my wife. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).


Antoine Leboyer said…

Racism and Antisemitism are still far too present in our world, not only in music.

Philip Amos said…
I have to think that the unnamed Deputy Director was Sir Reginald Thatcher. As Director of Music at the BBC, Sir Adrian Boult's workload had always been taxing, hence Thatcher's appointment as Deputy in 1937.During the War, Boult and the orchestra were exiled to Bristol, Boult in charge of matters purely musical, while Thatcher was sent to Evesham in charge of administration. As I can find no mention of multiple deputy directors, I must think Dunbar was interviewed by Thatcher. I must insert here that Sir Adrian, after attending a concert conductored by Dean Dixon in Paris, 1950, described him as "a sort of Yankee Vic Oliver, and about as musical", which from Boult I find doubly painful, though his comment as a whole displays no racist element. And I suppose Dixon may not have been in good form on that occasion. And so, I'm glad we know that in Dunbar's case it was the Deputy Director. In general, Thatcher seems to have been a very decent man, but I haven't finished looking at him. I'm very curious about Dunbar's letters, for it is there I should think it most likely that he named that man in question. The letters are deposited at Fisk University, but Webster mentions neither Thatcher nor Fisk.

Elsewhere, Dunbar conducted five orchestras in France, including a Festival of American Music, a huge success. He wrote that in Paris "they will applaud you, if you are good, whether you are pink, white or black". In Berlin, his concert included, besides the Still, Tchaikovsky's Sixth and Weber's Oberon Overture for an audience of about 2000 Berliners and numerous troops, receiving what the Chicago Tribune described as "ovations of stirring warmth". His reputation as a clarinetist caused Debussy's widow, some 15 years earlier, to give a recital in her home. And 15 years or so later, he conducted in Poland and the USSR. He also, to my surprise, conducted at the Hollywood Bowl.

The above is very tentative in parts, sources within my reach at the moment being rather scanty. But I think I may claim it to be at least a coherent explanation, though perhaps wrong. A sensible historian is always aware that he or she is working with incomplete evidence and may be wrong.

I rather think the evidence we have suggests that Thatcher was wrong, as was Boult about Dixon. This leads to what I'll term a 'tentative hypothesis', i.e., that Thatcher displays musical rather than racial prejudice. I suspect he remembered earlier years when Dunbar played much jazz and headed 'Dean Dixon and his Coloured Orchestra'. So, perhaps not racism, but rather musical snobbery.
JMW said…
At a time when perceptions about people of African descent were as unvarying in the exaltation of their physical prowess as they were pejorative in assessing their intellects and enlightenment, it is impossible to rule out the influence of racial stereotypes in the qualitative pronouncements of whites upon those of color. That combined with the very human tendency to be skeptical about what is new causes me to be equally skeptical concerning the ability to fairly receive a black man performing what was until that moment seen as something completely within the purview of whites.
Antoine Leboyer said…

Pliable said…
A new post following up on this one has been uploaded here -
Graeme said…
We have the testimony of Swiss conductor Ansermet in 1919 about Sydney Bechet to alert us to bias. His description of Bechet's appearance was strikingly unlike the physical reality and yet... He was alert to the musicianship. His ears were more open than his eyes. I suspect that things have now changed... So we revere Lang Lang because of our eyes and not our ears. Yuja Wang is a different kettle of fish... The real deal
Cigleris said…
So it would seem that either Victor Hayley-Hutchinson or Anthony Lewis who were directors of music (Lewis succeeding Hayley-Hutchinson) at the BBC and the Third programme made the first comment regarding Dunbar. The ‘team’ was small then so the second comment could either have been Leslie Stokes, Etienne Amyot or George Barnes.

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