Derek Bell (musician)

Derek Bell (musician)
Derek Bell
Birth name George Derek Fleetwood Bell
Born October 21, 1935(1935-10-21)
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Died October 17, 2002(2002-10-17) (aged 66)
Phoenix, Arizona
Genres Celtic music
Occupations Musician, Songwriter
Instruments Harp, Piano, oboe
Years active 1947–2002
Associated acts The Chieftains

George Derek Fleetwood Bell, MBE (October 21, 1935 – October 17, 2002) was an Northern Irish harpist, pianist, oboist, musicologist, and composer, best known for his accompaniment work on various instruments with The Chieftains.


As classical composer and virtuoso

Bell was born George Derek Fleetwood Bell in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Because he had been misdiagnosed at an early age as having a disease that would lead to blindness, his parents gave him a musical upbringing. Bell was something of a child prodigy, composing his first concerto at the age of 12. He graduated from the Royal College of Music in 1957. While studying there, he became friends with flautist James Galway. Between 1958 and 1990 he composed several classical works, including three piano sonatas, two symphonies, Three Images of Ireland in Druid Times (in 1993) for harp, strings and timpani, Nocturne on an Icelandic Melody (1997) for oboe d'amore and piano and Three Transcendental Concert Studies (2000) for oboe and piano. Bell had mastered and held an exquisite collection of several instruments, including various harps, harpsichord, piano, cymbalom, and all the members of the oboe family of instruments (musette, oboe, cor anglais, bass oboe) and the heckelphone [1]

As manager of the Belfast Symphony Orchestra he was responsible for maintaining the instruments and keeping them in tune. Out of curiosity, Bell asked Sheila Larchet-Cuthbert to teach him how to play the harp. As time went on, he had many harp teachers. In 1965 he became an oboist and harpist with the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra.[2] He had been known to be able to skilfully play the pedal harp, neo-Celtic harp, and wire-strung Irish-Bardic harp. Bell served as a Professor of Harp at the Academy of Music in Belfast.[3]

Bell had been briefly featured in the 1986 BBC documentary, The Celts, in which he discussed the role and evolution of the harp in Celtic Irish and Welsh society. Aside that, video clips of him only exist in the form of minor interviews and performances with The Chieftains.

Bell as dulcimer player

The hammered dulcimer is well documented as having been played in Ireland in the eighteenth century and is even mentioned by James Joyce as an instrument he heard being played in the street. Derek Bell introduced a small cimbalom (a hammered dulcimer from Central and Eastern Europe), which he christened tiompan after the medieval Irish instrument.

The Chieftains

On St Patrick's Day in 1972 Bell gave a performance on radio of the music of Turlough O'Carolan, an 18th century blind Irish harpist. At that time Carolan's music was virtually unknown, though today almost every album of harp music contains one of his compositions. Working with Derek on the project were several members of The Chieftains. Bell became friends with the leader of the Chieftains, Paddy Moloney. For two precarious years he recorded both with the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra and with The Chieftains, until finally becoming a full-time member of the Chieftains in 1975.[2]


Bell was the only member of the band to wear a tie at every public performance. He favoured socks with novelty designs, such as images of Looney Tunes characters. He wore scruffy suits, often with trousers that were too short. He was eccentric and told obscene jokes.[4] The title of his 1981 solo album Derek Bell Plays With Himself has a conscious double-entendre. While touring in Moscow he grabbed his alarm clock and put it in his pocket while rushing to catch a plane. He was then stopped by the Soviet police on suspicion of carrying a concealed weapon. Paddy Moloney affectionately called him "Ding Dong" Bell. He relished the eclectic collaborations, such as those with Van Morrison, Sting and the Chinese Orchestra. In 1991 he recorded with his old friend James Galway. He was awarded an MBE in the 2000 Queen's Birthday Honours List for services to traditional music.[2]

Eastern religions

From the early 1960s Bell was a friend of Swami Kriyananda, also known as J. Donald Walters (Walters is also an avid composer of music for the Irish harp). Bell and some associates visited Kriyananda at his spiritual centre in Ananda village in Nevada City, California. Bell wrote a preface to an edition of Kriyananda's book Art As a Hidden Message. He writes, "After reading it, I decided to get in touch with him... I also visited Ananda several times, the beautiful village Kriyananda himself founded in 1968... I offered to record some of Kriyananda's music". His first album the "Mystic Harp" with Kriyananda was well reviewed by the New York times - "This is a lovely, light album full of charm and innocence [...] The Mystic Harp will take you to places that stretch from the innocence of childhood to the mystery and otherworldliness of the spiritual." His final album was also with Kriyananda, the Mystic Harp vol II, a collection of compositions in a new age style, for solo harp, quite different from the traditional and classical compositions for which he was otherwise known. In August 2002, only weeks before his death, Bell visited Kriyananda. Although Bell was born a Protestant, he became a Buddhist later in life.[4]


Bell died of cardiac arrest in Phoenix, Arizona on October 17, 2002.[2] He is remembered at Cambridge House Grammar School, Ballymena, as House Patron of Bell House.

Solo Discography (excluding accompaniment with The Chieftains)

  • Carolan's Receipt (1975)
  • Carolan's Favourite (1980)
  • Derek Bell Plays With Himself (1981)
  • Musical Ireland (1982)
  • Ancient Music For The Irish Harp (1989)
  • Mystic Harp (1996)
  • A Celtic Evening with Derek Bell (1997)
  • Mystic Harp (Volume II) (1999)


  1. ^ The Bell Tolls Too Soon For Derek
  2. ^ a b c d Clark, Nora Joan; Sylvia Stauffer (2003). Story of the Irish Harp Its History and Influence. North Creek Press. pp. 192. ISBN 978-0972420204. 
  3. ^ "Derek Bell a Member of the Chieftains has Died in the USA". 19 October 2002. Retrieved 28 December 2009. 
  4. ^ a b Glatt, John (2000). The Chieftains: The Authorized Biography. De cappo Press. pp. 366. ISBN 978-0306809224. 

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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