To Celebrate, to commemorate: Thurston Dart 1921 – 1971

Thurston Dart

“Music…has no enemy save ignorance”. Thus ends Thurston Dart’s seminal book The Interpretation of Music published way back in 1954 by Hutchinson [M606.d.95.1]. And it was this “ignorance”, particularly in performance practice and editorial methods which Dart strove throughout his life to address. In his book, he set out the importance of going back to the source of a work and, crucially, understanding the conventions of both performance and notation at the time of its composition and publication in order to perform the work with some hope of resembling what the composer would have envisaged. 

Today, all this is no longer rocket science, but at the time it was pretty revolutionary, kick-starting a whole new era of performance practice which has since developed and refined and, thankfully, been absorbed into today’s approach. (Indeed, when I was a raw undergraduate here 50 years ago, I remember vividly several sessions given by Christopher Hogwood on this very topic). And not only performance practice of course, but also editorial practice. No-one, these days, would with any serious intent publish a “good” edition of a piece of music (I nearly wrote “early music” but stopped myself just in time) without consulting the original source – if possible – and without a clear understanding of the performance practices of the time in order to guide and support today’s musicians in the best possible way.

As Ian Bent’s Grove article on Dart says: “He trained a generation of scholars not only in clear, critical thinking about musical topics, but also in palaeographic, diplomatic and bibliographic skills, and emphasized the study of the history and techniques of printing.” He practiced what he preached: an accomplished keyboard player, he made some 90 recordings and was Artistic Director of the Philomusica of London from 1955.

Here in Cambridge, he was a Fellow of Jesus College from 1953 and in 1962 was appointed Professor of Music. Sadly, it was not a comfortable time as his ideas were often at variance with custom and practice in the Faculty at the time. He left in 1964 to become the King Edward Professor of Music at the University of London and went on to found the Faculty of Music at King’s College, London where he was able to completely revolutionise the syllabus for music.

Above and beyond all this, his work as an editor was prodigious: over 60 editions of works by composers such as Handel, Dowland, Purcell, Morley, Byrd and – of course – Anon (and this is not counting the many revisions – or perhaps re-workings is a better phrase –  of other editors’ editions, such as Edmund Fellowes). He was instrumental in the establishment of Musica Britannica [M200.a.30.1-] and was a key figure of it for the rest of his life. He gave over 50 broadcast talks from Byrd to (and this surprised me) Berg’s Violin Concerto. I gave up counting the number of articles he had published wondering where on earth he found the time to accomplish all this.

What I didn’t know (shame on me), was that his degree was in maths – how often those two subjects go hand in hand (yes, dear reader, that includes me). And – delightfully – in later life, Dart was adamant that “abroad” meant only Belgium and the Netherlands (his mother was Belgian). Marvellous, and I sympathise – in these difficult times, abroad for me is getting on a train to Norwich or London!

We are fortunate here in the University Library in that we acquired a significant amount of Dart-related archive material back in 2012. I say “acquired”, but in fact the material which includes letters, papers, photos, draft chapters, sound recordings, music manuscripts and printed scores in the possession of, and carefully looked after by, several of his former pupils and colleagues was brought together by Greg Holt (who sadly died last year), a former pupil of Dart’s at King’s College London, and subsequently presented to the UL. A temporary handlist is on our website at

Greg had also put together a charming appreciation of Dart which includes an account of the establishment of the archive of what he delightfully calls “Object Dart”. Interestingly Holt also reports that through material in the archive, it has been possible to establish the provenance of some of the many instruments owned by Dart and now “scattered all over the world”. For me, this is a ringing endorsement of the importance of archives.

In sum: Dart was an accomplished musician, a deeply complex character, sure of his ground and that it was other people who had “got it wrong” (a favourite phrase, I gather). For him, it was the music first and foremost which mattered. As Allen Perceval writes in his perceptive and honest introduction to Source Materials and the Interpretation of Music: a memorial volume to Thurston Dart [M470.c.95.274] “Notation, printing, provenance and the composer’s society all had to be studied, but the final ‘solution’ always depended on the way the music sounded to him… ‘It’s all there, look at the music’ was his oft-repeated rejoinder to a challenge of a particularly controversial suggestion”. And to quote from Greg Holt’s appreciation: “Dart favoured musical communication over any theory he had developed shows how much he served music rather than promoted his own considerable musicological achievements. For all his hours with dusty documents he was essentially about communicating with people. The musical world was a better place for the contribution of RTD.” Here he is in a recording of Dowland’s “Sir Henry Upton’s Funeral”, from his Lachrimae.

So Thurston Dart, we salute you, and hope that we don’t, too often, “get it wrong”.


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