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Ronald Lee was not a household name even in his native Northern Ireland, let alone further afield. Yet as John Crothers explains in this affectionate portrait, his influence on choir members and students during his many years as a church organist and schoolteacher was profound, and his career was distinguished by achievements of national and even international significance.

Lee was one of the last generation who could find themselves running a secondary school music department without a degree, and with teaching qualifications limited to a Licentiate diploma from Trinity College London. Encouraged by a schoolfriend to enrol as a chorister at the parish church, St Bartholomew’s Church of Ireland, in Stranmillis, south Belfast, he fell in love with church music on his first encounter with Harwood’s Evening Service in A flat, and the course was set for the rest of his life. By his mid-teens he was accompanying and sometimes directing the church choir. Appointed as temporary music master at Grosvenor High School, a co-educational grammar school in a predominantly working- class area of the city, Lee stayed until retirement, developing the school’s music programme in a unique way.

Lee’s passion was for choral singing, which he nurtured almost to the exclusion of orchestral music or the academic curriculum. Promising singers were identified, auditioned and enrolled in the choir, which rehearsed every day at lunchtime (packed lunches were eaten in the music department to save time). It is a cliché to say that choral singing in the UK was hugely influenced by the commercial success of recordings from King’s College, Cambridge; Ronnie Lee carried this influence to the point of obsession, visiting Cambridge annually to attend Evensong at King’s every day for a week, but never hearing any other choir.

He introduced the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols to Grosvenor and to the two churches where he worked, holding the school events in St Anne’s Cathedral in order to get as close as possible to the acoustics and atmosphere of King’s. An enthusiast for technology, he not only played recordings from Cambridge frequently to illustrate to his singers what they should be aiming for, but lugged heavy reel-to-reel tape recorders from home to school or church to record his choirs and let them hear themselves.

At an early stage he saw the value of competitions. His choirs progressed from local music festivals to prize-winning performances in Montreux, Switzerland, and the UK’s BBC/ Sainsbury’s Choir of the Year Competition – of which his adult choir Renaissance was the first ever winner. Renaissance also became the choir of choice for the Ulster Orchestra, particularly during the tenure as principal conductor of Yan Pascal Tortelier, who pays a generous tribute in this book to Lee’s musicianship and the quality of his choir-training.

The Troubles were a backdrop to much of Lee’s career, claiming the life of one of his singers and her husband, who died in a hotel bombing not long after Renaissance had sung at their wedding. But Crothers does not dwell on the day-to-day difficulty of carrying on with school and church activities throughout the 1970s and 80s. Painstakingly researched and full of entertaining anecdotes and valuable insights, his book is a well-deserved tribute to a gifted teacher and much-loved man.

CLARE STEVENS Read the full review on Agora Classica


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