David Lee – organist and teacher who contributed greatly to cultural life of Dublin and Kilkenny

An Appreciation

David Lee: Returning from Kilkenny to live in Dublin in 1979 to be near his teaching base at the RIAM, he became organist of Dún Laoghaire Presbyterian Church, a position he held for over 40 years

The past 18 months have seen the passing of four leading professional organists, each of whom performed regularly in the long-established annual series of summer organ concerts in St Michael's Church, Dún Laoghaire. David Lee, the most senior of the group, died at the age of 85 on June 11th.

Lee was a scion of the prosperous retail family of Edward Lee & Co which, from 1885, established leading drapery outlets in Bray, Dún Laoghaire, Rathmines and Mary Street in central Dublin, and which through the Lockout of 1913 emerged as an employer with a strong social conscience.

While David had no interest in the family firm (of which he remained a sleeping director until its demise in the 1970s), and in political matters he leaned to the left.

He was educated at St Columba's College, Rathfarnham, where his innate musical talent was recognised. Elected organ scholar of Peterhouse College, Cambridge, in 1953, he came under the influence of the great scholar-performer Thurston Dart, who was the leading proponent in Britain of the postwar early music revival movement. Dart lent David his clavichord for three years, and when Lee asked if he would give him some instrumental lessons, Dart replied that he was too busy to do so, but if Lee offered him tea occasionally, he'd be happy to talk to him informally!


Returning to Dublin from Cambridge in 1957, he became organist of St Bartholomew's, Clyde Road, a position he held for 12 years until his appointment to a similar position at St Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny, where he was to remain for some nine years.

At St Bartholomew’s, David set about commissioning a complete reordering of the venerable old Gray & Davison organ of 1887, so as to make it more amenable to historically informed performances of music of the baroque and earlier periods from which most of the repertoire for the instrument came.

It was a radical plan and one that met with much opposition, but David persevered, determined to bring to Ireland an awareness of how the new aesthetic approach to the performance of music composed pre-1800 could enrich the experiences of both executants and audience. His instincts proved to be correct, and through the 1960s recitals that were given by organists from both home and abroad, the public showed by attendance in large numbers that there was an appetite for the historically based approach.

David Lee hoped to achieve something similar with the organ of St Canice's, but that was not to be; instead, as one who took immediately to Kilkenny as a city of rare beauty and architectural authenticity, he, together with like-minded friends George and Nora Vaughan of Thomastown, set about starting a festival, initially called Kilkenny Arts Week (later renamed Festival), which was a success from its first edition in 1974.

Lee taught organ privately at St Bartholomew’s and later for some 30 years at the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM), where he was professor of organ. He was a meticulous and deeply committed teacher.

He was not a blinkered one-instrument teacher, and together with his RIAM colleague Deirdre Doyle, who later became his partner and wife, they founded Dublin Master Classes in 1980, and over a period of some 35 years they brought here a succession of eminent musicians covering a wide range of instruments, and conducting, feeling passionately that Irish students deserved to be exposed to the best of world tuition available in their fields of study.

Returning from Kilkenny to live in Dublin in 1979 to be near his teaching base at the RIAM, he became organist of Dún Laoghaire Presbyterian Church, a position he held for over 40 years.

David Lee, shy in manner, was a kind, generous, if eccentric human being, who enjoyed the good things of life. He was an unapologetic bon viveur, who was a regular patron of Jammet’s restaurant in its glory days. There he would entertain friends with lavish generosity and stimulating conversation.

At the end of what were always delightfully memorable evenings, he departed into the night with a cheery Bertie Woosterish exhortation not to call him "tomorrow" before 12.30pm! May he rest in peace.