How famous is scholar, conductor and harpsichordist Thurston Dart, 40 years on? Part 2

With the death of Dart’s close personal friend and executor William Oxenbury, Gustav Leonhardt is now probably the only person alive who knew Dart, but not as a teacher. They were apparently well acquainted and served together on the jury at the harpsichord competition at Bruges.

Their approach to Froberger seems quite similar in these recordings of his Lamentation for Ferdinand III, made within a year of each other, in which Dart uses Leonhardt’s favourite instrument: the clavichord. See a review of Dart’s recording here:

Thurston Dart 1961 

Gustav Leonhardt 1962

Choice of instruments

Otherwise, their choice of instruments was quite different. Although Dart sometimes used historical instruments, some of which he restored himself, he apparently preferred modern steel-framed “revival” harpsichords.

From 1951 Dart was involved in the annual quadruple-harpsichord jamborees at the Royal Festival Hall with George Malcolm, Eileen Joyce and Denis Vaughan (who was instrumental in the creation of the UK National Lottery) – all playing “whispering giants’” which needed to be amplified to balance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The conductor was Boris Ord, another unsung early music pioneer.

Who knows anything about Boris Ord or has solo harpsichord or organ recordings featuring him? [Please comment]

On the appearance in July 1957 of a recording, the Gramophone reviewer enthused as follows:

Those who have enjoyed, year after year, the unique Festival Hall concerts at which Mr. Thomas Goff assembles a resplendent quartet of his inimitable harpsichords, will rejoice that some part of this hardy annual repertoire is at last made available on disc.

Here’s the beginning of Bach’s Concerto for three harpsichords in C major.

Dart continued to play modern-style harpsichords, with pedals and a 16-foot register, up to his last recording, made with Igor Kipnis and issued posthumously in 1972. Here they are in Couperin’s Allemande a deux clavecins (IXe Ordre), in which Dart’s Goff was parried by a Goble of equally gargantuan proportions.

Dart did leave us a recording of some historical organs, however. The 1958 sleeve notes for Two Centuries of English Organ Music state:

This record contains, it is believed for the first time in the history of the gramophone, a survey of English Organ Music (sic) stretching over 200 years, played on instruments contemporary with the examples selected. No pipework is used that was not part of the original organ…

I can only imagine that some tracks sounded very out of tune, at the time.

Here’s For a Double Organ from Melothesia by Matthew Locke, played on the Renatus Harris organ at St John’s Church, Wolverhampton


Dart’s career

Given his background, it seemed unlikely that Dart would end up as a professor of music, first briefly at Cambridge and then at King’s College, London. He sang a solo, as a boy soprano, on the BBC when he was a Chapel Royal chorister and, from 1938, spent a year at the Royal College of Music on “keyboard instruments” with Arnold Goldsbrough, about whom we also know precious little today.

Does anyone know anything about Arnold Goldsbrough or have memorabilia, photos, or recordings – particularly of his organ or solo harpsichord playing? [Please comment]

Dart then took a Maths degree, and after war service – during which he met Neville Marriner, when they were both patients in a military hospital – continued his musicological studies privately in Brussels, with the erudite and very aged Charles van den Borren (born in 1874), whom he outlived by only five years!

Mary Potts told me that he had said that he knew he would die young, and consequently needed to be very productive. And, indeed, aged 49, he died of stomach cancer; midway through a recording of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Sir Neville Marriner reports his demise in the booklet which accompanied the set (see also his extensive personal tribute):

We recorded Brandenburg Concerto No. 3  on January 30, 1971. Bob [Robert Thurston Dart] looked grey and tired. On Monday he did not make the frequent journeys with us to the control room. On Tuesday he had a mattress by the harpsichord so that he could rest between ‘takes’. He played the continuo for the first movements of Concertos 2 and 4, and for the serene Adagio [from a Sonata in G, BWV 1021] used for the slow movement for No. 3. I put him into the car which took him to the clinic at 5.30 P.M. and saw him no more.

His place in the 5th Brandenburg was taken by George Malcolm and the remaining continuo was split between Raymond Leppard and Colin Tilney (a student of Mary Potts). Although Dart had already recorded this concerto with the Philomusica – complete with a registered crescendo in the first movement cadenza! – it would have been interesting to see how his views had changed, more than 10 years later.

No published biography

Although dedicated students organized a reunion, in 2001, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his death; there are no plans currently to write a book about Robert Thurston Dart, as the prime candidate for that job has also died. However, since I started writing these posts, Greg Holt has assembled an online biography from items of “Dartiana” which he inherited, which includes some very interesting details and early photos.

One final claim to fame

Reportedly, it was the crumhorn hanging on Dart’s study wall – which formed part of a tantalizing, now dissipated and largely undocumented instrument collection – that inspired David Munrow to explore early wind instruments, and ultimately led to the formation of the Early Music Consort of London.

Who has lecture tapes, private recordings, personal recollections or anything else to add? [Please comment]

11 comments to How famous is scholar, conductor and harpsichordist Thurston Dart, 40 years on? Part 2

  • Thomas Green

    Thurston Dart is probably the person who got me into early music, though I didn’t realise the influence he was having.

    My mother took me to London to hear the Boyd Neel Orchestra when I was about 16, so maybe 1958. I had no idea this was an unusual experience, it was just like going to the cinema. Dart was playing a chamber organ with no pedals, and I heard afterwards that his feet were so big he couldn’t play pedals – don’t know whether that’s true. I think they included one of the Brandenburgs in the programme, can’t remember much more except being very impressed indeed.

    Dart edited two small booklets called Invitation to Medieval Music, with an excellent choice of 15-th century music, mainly short pieces, with a surprisingly useful introduction and a very short performance suggestion for each piece. The great thing was, they were cheap enough for us to buy when we were hard up. We played and sang these pieces until the original copies were in tatters. I have loved Binchois and Dufay ever since. Were it not for Dart I might never have met them. Perhaps many others have found their musical lives shaped by those books.

  • James McCarty

    I have no recordings of Boris Ord playing solo keyboards, but appended to the BBC DVD of the 2000 King’s College Choir Festival of Lessons and Carols (entitled Carols from King’s) there is a 45 minute black-and-white video of Ord conducting the 1954 service. This DVD also includes a fascinating 30-minute conversation between Sir David Willcocks, Sir Philip Ledger, and Stephen Cleobury.

  • Henry Lamprecht

    I am sad to hear Bill Oxenbury died. I knew Bill and got invited to Welbeck Street on a good few occasions and were regaled with tales of Thurston Dart. In fact Bill gave me a book called “The Interpretation of Music” by Dart.

  • Sandy Hackney

    Thurston Dart’s recording of Froberger’s “Tombeau de Blancrocher” moved me profoundly for years- still does decades later. (I was a lutenist, too, and we all drank a lot in the 70s!). But, I have survived so far and was led to the clavichord by the same recording – I have an early Hugh Gough.

    Thank you for your blog. I might ask if we could have more of the recordings you post? Just when we settle in, finis.

  • Fergus Hoey

    I recall in the late 1960s being a rear seat passenger in a rather nippy Mini Cooper “S”, out for an afternoon’s motoring to visit East Anglian churches. In the front passenger seat was Bob (Thurston) Dart and driving us was his Cambridge companion Dr. Milo Keynes (died 2008). Somewhere is Suffolk we all spotted a small sign pointing to the left on which was written, “To Thurston’s End”. Immediately Bob cried out “Stop the car Keynes!! I must investigate my end!”. Indeed it was a fine Elizabethan/Jacobean manor house…but in private ownership, so no internal investigation possible.

    I am convinced that Bob would have embraced historically based instruments had he lived longer and he had in fact long abandoned his Goff harpsichord which languished in the Music Faculty at Kings. I recall speaking to him at the time of his recording with Kipnis and he said to me, “I’m going to use a Goble.. but don’t tell Tom”. Indeed a few years earlier he had recorded the Handel Opus 6 set with Marriner in which he also used a Goble…..presumably for reliability as they were supremely well set up instruments thanks to the craftsmanship of the late Andrew Douglas. He had also commissioned a Hitchcock copy from Michael Thomas. Very few makers in the UK had even begun to think along these lines. Therefore it is easy to forget, but when he was alive, there were almost no historical copies in the UK….and the pioneers of historically informed performance practice were Leonhardt and Harnoncourt on the Continent. I remember Bob praising Harnoncourt’s Brandenburgs in an RCM lecture. RTD’s death came at a time of rapid change in the world of so-called Early Music. It is sad that he didn’t live longer to be able to challenge, inform, develop new ideas and express them in his own inimitable way.

  • John Boyden

    I am writing a book of memoirs of my life in the record business from 1957 until the present day. Tom Goff was kind to me, which is why I need information on the specification of his harpsichords with seven pedals. If anyone feels able to help me, I should be jolly glad.


  • Laurence Libin

    I had some private harpsichord lessons with Dart while studying for my M. Mus. at King’s College London in 1967-68. He lent me a spinet to practice upon, and gave me a $100 bill (possibly payment he’d received for some American work) to exchange and spend as I hitchhiked to the IMS meeting in Ljubljana. As I recall, his large Goff harpsichord had the octave span of a modern piano; it was quilled at least in part with condor obtained from the London zoo. Dart told me that in his publications he did not aim for 100% accuracy because that would prevent him from publishing anything; rather, he urgently wanted to produce as much as possible in the time he had, and left it to others to correct the errors. Though generous, he was not especially kindly toward us students, and one of my cohorts emerged from her viva voce in tears. I once turned pages for him during a recording session, for which he improvised a remarkably inventive, stylistically inaccurate but very musical continuo part, confident that the harpsichord would barely be heard.
    Laurence Libin

  • Chris Bensick

    Andras Schiff has talked about his studies with Thurston Dart in at least one interview (available on YouTube) — Dart provided the impetus for Schiff’s decision to play Bach on the modern piano without sustaining pedal.

  • Nick

    Fascinating article. It was Dart who captivated me as a young boy with his brave and colorful and spellbinding continuo work on his Goff harpsichord q which he used until he switched to a Goble (as it was more reliable on a day to day basis) and also perhaps as Raymond Leppard told me once told me with a smile, the Goble didn’t come with the biggest annoyance which was Tom Goff himself who was always micromanaging the registration and ornamentation, and stopping entire recording takes to retune a single string! But I digress. I have George Malcolm’s Goff today as a direct result of Dart’s recordings. My other Goff harpsichord I sent to Amsterdam where it is still used often for continuo with a non a=415 orchestra. Recently it was employed to great acclaim in a performance of the St Matthew Passion. So there are those across the globe to this day that try to emulate Dart”s confident style, all be it just a few!! But things have changed elsewhere since, thankfully, even the HIP crowd are becoming more adventurous again, rather than the tiresome reticent continuo that AAM, TEC and the Dutch thrust upon us listeners!

    Anyway the purpose of the post was to see if you’d like me to send copies of some original photos of Bob, along with several private letters between himself and his student Igor Kipnis (from whom I acquired them). They are very personal and kind. Regarding Igor”s new big Hass clavichord (which I also have now) “Dart suggested Igor feed it a daily diet of CPE Bach!” Let me know!

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