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The pianist who made sense of American music

Noel Lee, who died this morning aged 88, was the first pianist I heard play Aaron Copland. Or Elliott Carter. Or Charles Ives. Or a host of other American composers whose solo piano music was not considered sexy enough for European recital rooms.

Noel recorded the lot, and more. Over a long career and on lots of small labels, he made more than 200 albums.

A Nadia Boulanger pupil, he taught a various US colleges but mostly applied himself to performances and recording. First tribute here.

noel lee

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  1. Noel Lee studied with Walter Piston (Leroy Anderson’s teacher as well), Irving Fine and then in Paris with Nadia Boulanger.
    I never met him, but knew his name well. He recorded complete cycles of music, and has 198 recordings to his credit. His repertoire encompassed everything from Bach to the new works he often performed through his career. I only wish I had known him better personally.

  2. Tully Potter says:

    He was a great interpreter of French music.

  3. Sylvia Kahan says:

    I just saw Noel on Saturday the 13th in (appropriately enough) the “Mozart” wing of the physical rehabilitation center of the Hôpital Bïchat. He was frail, but in good spirits as always. Someone had brought him an electric piano and he was practicing, struggling to get back the use of the 4th and 5th fingers in his left hand, injured during the fall that necessitated his long hospital stay. I’m glad that I got to see him, and I’m comforted by the fact that his many loyal friends, students, and colleagues had paid him constant visits. Noel’s passing is a great loss for me personally and for the world of music. He was an extraordinary pianist and composer, and a brilliant, insightful and generous man. His talent and his radiant spirit will be sorely missed. C’est une grosse perte pour nous tous.

    • Dear Sylvia Kahan, I’am very glad to read your message about Noël from last Saturday. My plan was to come to Paris, I wrote and phoned Noël, but now I understand that he was in a hospital and he didn’t know about my messages. Do you know more what is happening now, will there be a funeral or what else? Is there a contact-person? If possible let me know.

  4. Christophe Lucier says:

    Thank you for spreading the news, Norman.
    You are faster with French news than the French media.

    Noël Lee had a tremendously fruitful career.
    He was one of the only musicians I’ve never heard criticized in Paris.
    “Une valeur sûre”, as we say here.

    More importantly, he was a great and generous man.
    His memory will live on in the hearts and minds of his many friends.

    There is a detailed article in today’s Le Monde:

    In that article Christian Ivaldi, an equally great musician, has an interesting remark about Mr Lee’s “impetuosity” at the piano, with which I agree.

    Also: the discography list on Mr Lee’s website is very impressive.

    I hope more videos will be posted to Youtube soon with audio from these out-of-print CDs so we can profit from Noël Lee’s artistry for many years to come.


  5. I cherish Lee’s recording on Nonesuch of the great piano music of Charles Tomlinson Griffes; his Piano Sonata is as good as Barber’s (indeed, prefigures it) and I’m mystified why it hasn’t joined the repertory.

  6. Thank you for posting this news. Noel Lee is immortalized in one of the finest poems by the late and highly regarded American poet Kenneth Koch (1925-2002), in his second poem entitled “The Circus.”

    From the Poetry Foundation’s website (

    “Noel Lee was in Paris then but usually out of it
    In Germany or Denmark giving a concert
    As part of an endless activity
    Which was either his career or his happiness or a combination of both
    Or neither I remember his dark eyes looking he was nervous
    With me perhaps because of our days at Harvard.

    It is understandable enough to be nervous with anybody!”

    In fact several major artistic figures from the American avant-garde appear in the poem, including John Cage, and, still with us, Koch’s close friends from his youth on, the late Frank O’Hara, and, still with us, Jane Freilicher and John Ashbery.

    Thanks also for the link to the Noel Lee video on YouTube; I’ll go seek out his recordings there and elsewhere.

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