The eminent English musicologist, keyboard player and conductor (Robert), Thurston Dart, was educated at Hampton Grammar School. He was a chorister at the Chapel Royal in Hampton Court. He studied keyboard instruments at the Royal College of Music in London from 1938 to 1939. He also took courses in mathematics at University College, Exeter, receiving Bachelor of Science in 1942. During World War II, he served as an officer in operational research in the Royal Air Force. During his wartime service, he chanced to meet Neville Marriner, a young violinist whose music studies had also been interrupted. After the war, he continued his studies in Brussels with Charles van den Boren.
In 1947 Thurston Dart became an assistant lecturer in music at the University of Cambridge, then a full lecturer in 1952, a finally a professor of music in 1962. In 1952 he also granted a fellowship at Jesus College, Cambridge. His academic tenure at Cambridge during the early 1960's was marred by intra-faculty disputes and ended in 1964 when he accepted the King Edward Professorship of Music at Kingís College of the University of London. Dart's notable students include the composer Michael Nyman and the conductor Christopher Hogwood.
Thurston Dart began giving recitals on the harpsichord, organ, and clavichord during the late 1940's. As a performing musician, he made numerous appearances on the harpsichord. He also appeared as organist and performer on Baroque keyboard instruments, and made frequent appearance on radio discussing Baroque-era music. In 1950, he made his first recordings and also recorded with the Jacobean Ensemble, an early music-performing group whose members included Neville Marriner. Dart also performed with the Boyd Neel Orchestra. On Boyd Neel's departure, Dart took over the job of conducting the group, which was renamed Philomusica of London. During his association with the Jacobean Ensemble and his four years conducting Philomusica of London, he made recordings of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and the Orchestral Suites, as well as the Double Violin Concerto, the Flute Concerto, and the Harpsichord Concertos, John Dowland's Lachrymae, George Frideric Handel's Water Music, the best-known serenades of Mozart, various works of Johann Christian Bach, and concerti grossi by Scarlatti, Arcangelo Corelli, and Geminiani.
Thurston Dart served as editor of the Galpin Society Journal from 1947 to 1954 and secretary of the documentary edition Musica Britannica from 1950 to 1965. He was involved in several other scholarly musical projects, including serving on the editorial committee of the Purcell Society and on the library committee of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. His magnum opus was The Interpretation of Music (London, 1954), an important study text. Much of his work involved the scores of J.S. Bach, most notably the Brandenburg Concertos and the Orchestral Suites, whose interpretation he revised in a radically new fashion for the recording by the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields released during the early 1970's. Dart wrote numerous articles on the interpretation of keyboard works by J.S. Bach, G.F. Handel, and Purcell, and made many recordings of those pieces. He supervised the revisions in the performing editions of the vocal music of William Byrd and François Couperin, and was also renowned for his collection of antique instruments, manuscripts, and early printed editions of Baroque scores that greatly aided his scholarly activities. He also edited works by Morley, John Bull, and others.
Thurston Dart was at the centre of the early music revival in England during the 1950's and 1960's, revolutionising the performance and perceptions of Baroque and early Classical-era music. However, his scholarly demeanour prevented him from ever achieving the kind of fame that his collaborator and colleague Neville Marriner did. As his health declined (he had chronic ill-health), he withdrew from the conductor's podium, and later ceased his keyboard recitals as well. Unfortunately, the end of his performing career happened just at the time audiences were beginning to take Baroque music more seriously and kept him from becoming the kind of household name that Neville Marriner, Christopher Hogwood, or Nikolaus Harnoncourt became later in the decade. Dart continued his scholarly activities, however, until shortly before his death and saw his work embodied in the performances and recordings of the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields.