seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA

Death of The Chieftains Harpist Derek Bell

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George Derek Fleetwood Bell, harpist, pianist, oboist, musicologist and composer best known for his accompaniment work on various instruments with The Chieftains, dies unexpectedly on October 17, 2002 in Phoenix, Arizona during a recovery period from minor surgery.

Bell is born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is something of a child prodigy, composing his first concerto at the age of twelve. He graduates from the Royal College of Music in 1957. While studying there, he became friends with the flautist James Galway. From 1958 to 1990 he composes 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.

As manager of the Belfast Symphony Orchestra, Bell is responsible for maintaining the instruments and keeping them in tune. Out of curiosity, he asks Sheila Larchet-Cuthbert to teach him how to play the harp. In 1965 he becomes an oboist and harpist with the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra. He serves as a professor of harp at the Academy of Music in Belfast.

Bell is briefly featured in a 1986 BBC documentary, The Celts, in which he discusses the role and evolution of the harp in Celtic Irish and Welsh society. He also appears with Van Morrison at the Riverside Theatre at the University of Ulster in April 1988.

Bell is an admirer of the music of Nikolai Karlovich Medtner and is the co-founder, with the bass-baritone Hugh Sheehan, of the first British Medtner Society which gives a series of successful concerts of Medtner’s music in the 1970s long before Medtner’s music is recognised as it is today.

On St. Patrick’s Day in 1972 Bell performs on the radio the music of Turlough O’Carolan, an 18th-century blind Irish harpist. At that time O’Carolan’s music is virtually unknown, though today almost every album of harp music contains one of his compositions. Working with him on the project are several members of The Chieftains. Bell becomes friends with the leader of The Chieftains, Paddy Moloney. For two precarious years, he records both with the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra and with The Chieftains, until finally becoming a full-time member of the Chieftains in 1975.

Bell is the only member of the band to wear a necktie at every public performance. He favours socks with novelty designs, such as images of Looney Tunes characters. He wears scruffy suits, often with trousers that are too short. He is eccentric and tells obscene jokes. The title of his 1981 solo album Derek Bell Plays With Himself has a conscious double entendre.

While touring in Moscow he grabs his alarm clock and puts it in his pocket while rushing to catch a plane. He is then stopped by the Soviet police on suspicion of carrying a concealed weapon. Paddy Moloney affectionately calls him “Ding Dong” Bell. He relishes the eclectic collaborations, such as those with Van Morrison, Sting and the Chinese orchestra. In 1991 he records with his old friend James Galway. He is awarded an MBE in the 2000 Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to traditional music.

Bell dies of cardiac arrest in Phoenix, Arizona on October 17, 2002, just four days shy of his 67th birthday. He is remembered at Cambridge House Grammar School, Ballymena, as House Patron of Bell House.

Author: Jim Doyle

As a descendant of Joshua Doyle (b. 1775, Dublin, Ireland), I have a strong interest in Irish culture and history, which is the primary focus of this site. I am a Network Engineer at The Computer Hut, LLC, which is my salaried job. I am a member of the Irish Cultural Society of Arkansas, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization (2010-Present, President 2011-2017). I have also served on the City of Little Rock Arts+Culture Commission (2015-2020, Chairman 2017-2018) and the Walnut Valley Property Owners Association board (2015-2020, Secretary 2017-2020).

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