Wednesday, February 26, 2020

'When I conducted the Berlin Philharmonic I purified it'

Rudolph Dunbar, then a war correspondent attached to the American Army, had already scored a personal triumph in London. Three years earlier he had conducted the London Philharmonic, the first of his race to do so. Goebbels' propaganda machine had leapt on this with delight: Britain's 'low cultural level' was exemplified by promoting a black conductor.

As a result, he was already well known. The Russians and Americans felt his presence on the podium would symbolise the crushing of fascism, and the Russian commander held a huge luncheon in his honour. But his English counterpart was dismayed. The thought of a black man in charge of this eminent cultural institution was too much for him and he tried to prevent it. Only the fact that the concert was held in the American sector saved the day. 'English people do not like black intellectuals,' says Dunbar pointedly. 'But Hitler polluted the air with his racial doctrine, and when I conducted the Berlin Philharmonic, I purified it'.

Daring to work in the field of 'white man's music', he was never allowed to forget he was black. Sir Malcolm Sargent was one of many orchestral notabilities who questioned his credentials. 'Who is this Dunbar?' he asked impressario Harold Holt. 'Have you ever seen him conduct?' Holt replied that he hadn't, adding, 'I haven't seen Toscanini, either, but I brought him to this country for the first time.
That extract is transcribed from a City Limits Magazine interview with the Guyanese musician Rudolph Dunbar dated March 7th 1986. The headline quote will doubtless raise eyebrows. But it should be remembered that while black people were not subject to genocide by the Nazis they were considered to be an inferior race, a status enshrined in a supplement to the antisemitic and racist Nuremberg Laws. In Mein Kampf Hitler linked Jewish and black people, writing "It was and is the Jews who bring the Negroes into the Rhineland, always with the same secret thought and clear aim of ruining the hated white race by the necessarily resulting bastardisation". This post provides a codicil to my recent article about how Rudolph Dunbar's career was ruined by senior figures in the BBC, and the Berlin Philharmonic's first black conductor is seen above.

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