After studying at Cambridge University and the Royal College of Music, London, Norrington was a professional singer for ten years. He founded choirs specializing in the music of Schütz and Monteverdi and led the Schütz Choir of London from 1962-1982. His conducting career has continued with a succession of high profile engagements: musical director and principal conductor of Kent Opera, one of Britain's leading provincial opera companies (1969-1984); the Bournemouth Sinfonietta (1985-1989); the London Baroque and London Classical Players (1978-1998); music director of St. Luke's, New York (1990-1994); conductor of Camerata Academica, Salzburg (1997 - 2006); and Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (1998 - 2011). He has also been a guest conductor of many British and American orchestras. In January 2010, the Zurich Chamber Orchestra named Norrington as principal conductor, beginning with its 2011-2012 season.
Norrington is remarkably consistent in his approach to performance practices, placing particular emphasis on details such as the size and layout of the orchestra, and the differences in sound quality and playing techniques that have taken place since the works were written. Practically all the instruments in a modern symphony orchestra have changed in important ways and, therefore, in sound from those that were available before the 20th century. The effect of this attention to orchestral color is noticeable, as are the generally faster tempi of Norrington's interpretations and other factors that reveal new and unexpected aspects of familiar works. For example, he accepts Beethoven's own metronome markings, which are frequently ignored by others.
Predictably, he has been criticized for neglecting what many regard as more important traditions of orchestral playing but, as he has said, "No tradition is stronger than the latest tradition." Nor is he willfully idiosyncratic; his approach is based on detailed analysis, though he does not claim "authenticity" and asserts "there is no such thing as a definitive performance."
In an introduction to his performances of all Beethoven's nine symphonies with the London Classical Players for BBC Television in 1989 -- one which differs in almost every respect from Klemperer's Beethoven cycle of 1972 for instance -- he spoke of the need to "reconsider every single aspect" of these works in the light of the composer's intentions. He has recorded a strikingly original performance of Haydn's oratorio The Seasons, and extended his task of "restoration" into late 19th century and even 20th century works. He has expanded his repertoire to include the symphonies of Bruckner, Brahms, and Mahler in a series of recordings with the SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra on Hänssler Classic.
Norrington's interpretations have a persuasive freshness, clarity and vitality, and his approach to the Baroque and Classical orchestral repertory has had a considerable influence on both professional musicians and attentive audiences. He received a knighthood in 1997 and is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music and Royal College of Music.