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‘I told my pianist many times how much I loved him’

A tribute to Noel Lee, who died today, by the Norwegian violinist Ole Böhn.

noel lee

Noel Lee was a musician’s musician. Born in China to American parents, he served in the US army in the Second World War and studied at Harvard University before heading to France where Nadia Boulanger became his teacher. Noel immediately felt at home in Paris and eventually became a French citizen.

He made more than 200 recordings of which several received the Grand Prix de Disc. His complete recordings of the piano music of Debussy and Ravel stand out as the finest ever made. I also highly appreciate his complete Schubert sonatas.

Noel was the perfect chamber music partner. He formed a famous duo with violinist Paul Makanowitzky and their recordings of the Beethoven and Bach sonatas are legendary . With Christian Ivaldi he formed a piano duo and also appeared often with violinist Gerard Poulet.  Personally I feel honoured to have had numerous concerts with him. He introduced me to Elliott Carter and we played the European premiere of Elliott Carter’s Duo, which we also recorded.

Playing with Noel was always special. He was very well prepared before the first rehearsal and had strong views on the interpretation. Being the older of us, he knew many of the works that I played for the first time. Sometimes I would play from memory, while he used the music. But he took revenge , when I played the Cesar Franck sonata in public for the first time. HE played from memory, I had to use the music!
As a composer he looked at music from a composer’s aspect. He detested unnecessary ” violinisms” and his remarks : “Don’t drag, you break the musical line” or ” a slide again???!!!” remain in my ear. Noel had a great sense of rhythm and was very helpful in studying the Carter Duo. Although he had played several times his piano sonata, here we started both from scratch. We had numerous rehearsals and I think we managed to play the Duo quite well in many places in Europe.
I am very happy that I managed to tell Noel many times how much I loved him. Last time when I saw him a couple of weeks at the hospital. He has played such an important part of my musical upbringing and introduced me to Ellliott Carter who later wrote his violin concerto and Statement for solo violin for me. Elliott Carter also became a musical mentor and now both Noel and Elliott are gone. I feel like an orphan !

(c) Ole Böhn/Slipped Disc

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  1. R. James Tobin says:

    Nadia Boulanger thought enough of his abilities to ask him to substitute for her in a performance of Stravinsky’s Les Noces.

    • Christophe Lucier says:

      If I’m not mistaken, Stravinsky attended the performance.
      It was in Paris early in Noël’s career.

  2. Such a beautiful, eloquent tribute! Thank you, Ole Böhn.
    Ana Cervantes.

  3. ruben greenberg says:

    Might I also mention the wonderful duet he formed with the Dutch Baritone, Bernard Kruysen; great interpretations
    of the Classic French “mélodies” by two non-French, Francophile performers. Noel Lee was an important part of musical life here in France and he will be greatly missed.

    • I remember a wonderful concert with Bernard Kreysen and Noel in Paris. Songs by Duparc, Debussy, Noel Lee and the Dichterliebe. Bernard Kreysen was at his best and Noel played everything from memory ,except his own songs. He later told me that playing his own music from memory was difficult , because all his sketches came into his head and he forgot which version he had chosen !

  4. Descanse en paz

  5. Ole Bohn: Thank you for your kind and wonderful words on the passing of our mutual friend, Noel Lee.
    This is all too sad and sudden, as I recently tried to E mail Noel on two occasions and knew he must be ill, as he usually wrote back quickly. From 1968 to 1972, he was my teacher in Paris and partner at that time.
    He was brilliant, kind and much fun. He leaves behind a huge discography which attests to his pianism, in 20th century literature as well has a legacy of his own compositions. I could write a book on how I met him, and journeys with him, which included you, if you recall. Through him at 4 Villa Laugier, I met Ned Rorem, James Baldwin, Henri Dutilleux, Jean Barraque and in the states, Paul Jacobs and Aaron Copland. We spent a week with Aaron at his home in Peekskille in 1969. Like you, I loved him very much and mourn his passing.
    Robert “Bob” Huffman

  6. Thank you Ole Böhn. A great shock ….. The more so because also baritone Udo Reinemann died last Saturday, July 13th. Udo Reinemann, the singer who instilled the love of the song into me and innumerable others. For whom I was privileged to organise my very first concerts at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in February 1985. Three times Schubert within one week with the absolute climax of an unforgettable Winterreise that left you in tears and dumbfounded.
    With then, as on many other occasions afterwards, Noël Lee as his accompanist. Two passionate and utterly pure and straightforward musicians are no longer with us. An immense loss but they both leave a wealth of cherished and imperishable memories behind. May they rest in peace.

  7. Pieter Grimbergen says:

    I own Noel Lee many many thanks for his great lessons to me and his superb advices…a great musician and wonderful person passed away. Deeply shocked.

  8. Christophe Lucier says:

    Another great violinist with whom Noël Lee collaborated often is Gérard Poulet.
    Their CD of American music is fantastic (Ives, Copland, Beach, Lee).

    I just discovered a Stravinsky CD of which I was not previously aware:

    I’m hoping someone will post the Poulet/Lee recording of the complete piano and violin works by Schubert to Youtube. My tapes are completely worn out, the performances are astonishingly energetic.
    Also: the complete Schubert 4 hand music with Christian Ivaldi is supposed to be incredible.

    Noël’s obituary is on the Gramophone website now.

  9. I knew of Noel Lee long before I met him. I remember as a young composer in the 1970s listening to his Nonesuch recording of the complete Stravinsky piano works. As a graduate student at Cornell in the 80s I heard much about his guest teaching there. I finally met him in 1991 in Fontainebleau, where I was teaching at the time. He played a splendid concert which included sonatas by Carter and Hunter Johnson and the Copland Piano Variations. I remember vividly his concert at the Nadia Boulanger Symposium at the University of Colorado in 2004, organized by Don Campbell, and which did so much to focus renewed attention on Noel’s and my beloved teacher. Noel loved to have friends over for dinner, and to connect them to each other. I met many wonderful people at Noel’s apartment during the past 22 years. I had a long visit with him at the hospital on Sunday, July 11th. He was frail but in good spirits. He was generous, warm, and a great friend as well as a great musician.

    David Conte

    • Patrick Poivre says:

      I started to share mails with him several years ago about the LP I discovered at that time: the 6 Bach sonatas recorded with Paul Makanowitsky. We discussed the idea to try to edit a CD from the original tapes and this is exactly what Doremi did in its Legendary Records serie in 2008. The contacts with him were delicious and warmful. He invited me several times to his concerts in Paris and it was just wonderful.
      Immense loss…
      Warm regards to his friends, pupills and listeners.

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