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David Lee (1837–1897)

by Sally O'Neill and Thérèse Radic

This article was published:

David Lee (1837-1897), organist and conductor, was born on 20 March 1837 at Armagh, Ireland, son of James Lee, professor of music, and his wife Mary, née Scarlet. At 4 he entered the Armagh Cathedral School, at 7 became a chorister and at 12 was made deputy-organist of Armagh Cathedral. On leaving school he joined the Provincial Bank of Ireland as a clerk.

Lee arrived at Melbourne in the Morning Light on 26 July 1864. He was soon appointed organist at St Luke's Church, Emerald Hill, and opened its new organ in March 1865. He also founded the Emerald Hill Philharmonic Society. At various times he was organist at St Stephen's Church, Richmond, the Independent Church, Collins Street, where he led the choir for eight years, St Mark's, Fitzroy, and St Andrew's, Brighton. He opened organs in many city and suburban churches, notably St Patrick's Cathedral on 14 March 1880 and Chalmers Presbyterian Church, East Melbourne, on 30 April 1885. He was honorary organist of the Melbourne Philharmonic Society in 1866. In accord with the policy of choosing a choral rather than an orchestral conductor, Lee was appointed conductor from 1867 to 1874, when he visited America and Europe, and in 1877-88. He also taught music. In 1867 he joined the organist, Samuel Kaye, and set up a business importing pianos, harmoniums and organs. In 1875 the organbuilder, Robert Mackenzie, joined the firm and his factory was attached to Lee & Kaye's premises at 17 Collins Street. Three years later George Fincham bought the firm.

In October 1866 Lee played the organ at the inaugural ceremony of the Melbourne International Exhibition, with C. E. Horsley conducting. On 8 August 1872 he opened the new Town Hall organ. In 1877 he was appointed first city organist of Melbourne by the City Council. For some years his twice-weekly recitals in the Town Hall drew large audiences but they fell off partly because he 'seemed to have run through his repertoire and partly because he had a predilection for pieces that were scarcely adapted for organ playing'. He was invited to give the opening recital on the new organ of the Adelaide Town Hall in October 1877. He visited Europe again in 1887.

Lee's influence in the Philharmonic Society was later described by George Peake who claimed that Lee's 'keen business instinct possibly affected his musical judgement, while his bonhomie and personal popularity probably disarmed criticism, much to his own disadvantage as a public musician. His musical enterprise appeared to be influenced by a desire to please the public and win popularity, rather than promote the educational and progressive advance of musical art'. Lee's limitations as conductor of the society affected the musical life of Melbourne for many years; he was finally forced out of the society in 1888 after years of constant friction, especially because of his fruitless requests for payment of his salary. On 23 April 1877 at Christ Church, St Kilda, he had married Mary Mackenzie, eldest daughter of Archibald Johnson of Toorak House. She predeceased him without issue. Lee died of kidney disease at South Yarra on 12 May 1897 and was buried in the Anglican section of the Melbourne general cemetery. Pall-bearers included the mayor of Melbourne, G. L. Allan, and C. Fincham.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Peake, Melbourne Philharmonic Society Diamond Jubilee, 1853-1913 (Melb, 1913)
  • E. N. Matthews, Colonial Organs and Organbuilders (Melb, 1969)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 13 May 1897
  • Australasian, 15 May 1897.

Citation details

Sally O'Neill and Thérèse Radic, 'Lee, David (1837–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


20 March, 1837
Armagh, Armagh, Ireland


12 May, 1897 (aged 60)
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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