Born in 1924 in Nanjing, China, Lee studied music in Lafayette, Indiana, then attended Harvard University, studying with Walter Piston, Irving Fine, and Tillman Merritt and was also a student at the Longy School of Music in the early 1940s. Following World War II, he traveled to Paris where he studied music with Nadia Boulanger and was a friend of Douglas Allanbrook. He composed orchestral, chamber, piano, vocal, and film music. In addition, he completed several unfinished piano works by Franz Schubert, and composed cadenzas for piano concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. He was also well known for his piano accompaniment.
He received numerous awards throughout his career, an Academy Award in Art from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his creative work in 1959; and from France, twice laureate of the Fondation de France, in 1998, the grade of Commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and, in 1999, from the city of Paris, the Grand Prix de la Musique.
Lee's first recordings were for the Valois label of Michel Bernstein.
He famously recorded, together with French pianist Christian Ivaldi, the complete works for four hands by Schubert for the label Arion.
He was the pianist for the American violinist Paul Makanowitzki (1920-1998), the Dutch baritone Bernard Kruysen (1933-2000) and the French soprano Anne-Marie Rodde.
As a pianist, he toured on six continents and recorded 198 LPs and CDs since 1955, particularly of Schubert (including the complete sonatas), Debussy, Ravel, Charles Ives, Bartók, Stravinsky, Aaron Copland and Elliott Carter. Thirteen of these have received a Grand Prix du Disque.
- Dyer, Richard. "Longy-trained pianist Lee straight from French school". Boston Globe (November 10, 1998) p. C3
- Piano ma non solo, Jean-Pierre Thiollet, Anagramme Ed., 2012, p. 185
- American Academy of Arts and Letters: Year: 1959
- Noël Lee's Homepage
- Noël Lee page from American Music Center site
- Noël Lee interview by Bruce Duffie