Derek Bell
Born: October 21, 1935 in Belfast, Co. Down, Ireland and died October 17, 2002 in Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Instruments: Irish harp, dulcimer, oboe, oboe d'amour, oboe cor anglais, harpsichord, mediaeval harp, Kurzweil synthesizer, organ, piano, keyboard & tiompán.
Albums Present: Chieftains 4 - Further Down the Old Plank Road

Derek, a native of Belfast, joined the Chieftains as a full-time member in 1974 with his appearance on the Chieftains 4 . Prior to his joining the Chieftains, he was an accomplished classical musician on a variety of instruments.

Derek Fleetwood Bell was born October 21, 1935 in Belfast, Ireland. With a misdiagnosis of imminent blindness as a young child, his parents surrounded him with musical toys to inspire him to develop his hearing. He was a child prodigy who learned the piano at an early age and wrote his first piano concerto at age 12. He later studied at the Royal College of Music in London. His training and studying took him throughout Europe and the United States, particularly London and Colorado, to study under such renowned teachers as Leon Goossens and Madam Rosina Lhevinne. Derek has appeared with Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and symphony orchestras of Pittsburgh, Moscow, Dublin, Liverpool, London and Budapest and was at one time a principle oboe, horn and piano player for the American Wind Symphony Orchestra. He has composed piano sonatas and a symphony in E-flat for orchestra. He has also recieved the Manns Prize from the Royal College of Music for his musical talents. He is an accomplished musician on the oboe, English horn, cor anglais, hammered dulcimer and keyboards.

Despite his talents and accomplishments on other instruments, Derek is best known for his skills on the harp. As manager of the Belfast Symphony Orchestra, he was responsible for tuning and maintaining the harps. After continually tuning them, he decided to take the insturment up and learned to play the instrument. He did not take up the harp until he was nearly 30 when he took his first lessons from Sheila Larchet-Cuthbert after he borrowed his first harp from a local arts council. He mastered the harp quickly and in 1965 joined the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra as a harpist and principal oboe player. His talents on the harp have also allowed him to become a professor of harp at the Belfast Academy of Music. He also brought his skills as an accomplished keyboardist to the growing sound of the Chieftains. He was also instrumental in the revival of the tiompán, a cousin to the hammered dulcimer. Aside from being an accomplished instrumentalist, he brought his talents in composing and musical arrangement for the Chieftains to work with orchestras and film work. Interestingly, Derek was involved in film work long before he became a Chieftain. In the film, Doctor Zhivago, Derek plays a cimbalom to imitate the sound of a balalaika on several scenes for the movie made in 1965.

It was while he was member of the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra in 1972, that he first met Paddy Moloney. He was invited to perform with the Chieftains and the orchestra for a special St. Patrick's Day broadcast in Northern Ireland commemorating the life of Turlough O'Carolan with Derek dressed up as O'Carolan. This marked one of the first meetings between Derek Bell and Paddy Moloney. He was invited to be a guest musician and eventually recorded four tracks on the Chieftains 4 album with him featured on an O'Carolan composition, Morgan Magan. He continued his BBC Northern Ireland orchestra position as he continued to explore traditional music. He continued the dual career for a number of years with increasing difficulty as his commitment to the Chieftains continued to grow. He joined the Chieftains as a full-fledged member when the group went professional in 1975.

Simultaneously, he maintained his career as a classical composer and harpist, writing three piano sonatas and two symphonies. The second symphony, The Violent Flame, Comte de Saint Germain, was performed at the 1991 Edinburgh festival with the Northern Ireland Symphony Orchestra. Derek's composition "Three Images Of Ireland In Druid Times", written for Neo-Irish harp, strings and timpani, was premiered by Derek and the Boston College Chamber Orchestra in 1992 as part of the Boston Celtic Harp Festival. The original score can be found at the Burns Library Irish Music Center archives. Derek also recorded eight solo albums, including two on harp featuring Turlough O' Carolan's compositions and several with traditional Irish music. He was honored by Queen Elizabeth II as a Member of the British Empire in 2000 for his contributions in both classical music and traditional Irish music.

Besides recording with The Chieftains, Derek has recorded eight solo albums, six on harp and one on piano. Derek is a truly gifted musician and his talents have enhanced the sound of The Chieftains. His good nature and eccentricity added to the dynamics of the group both professionally and musically. His mischievous antics and wild argyle socks in contrast to his conservative suits and sweaters on stage kept the show lively especially as the group tried to rein him in during one of his infamous piano solos. Sadly, music fans and fellow artists mourned the loss of a talented man on October 17, 2002, when Derek Bell died suddenly in Phoenix, AZ after routine medical checks.

The surviving members of The Chieftains -- Paddy Moloney, Seán Keane, Kevin Conneff, Matt Molloy, Martin Fay, Michael Tubridy and Seán Potts -- issued a joint statement lamenting the loss of their fellow bandmember and friend:

"It is with deep sadness that The Chieftains must announce the sudden death of fellow band member and much loved friend, Derek Bell, MBE. Following a recent concert in the US, Derek had remained behind for minor surgery and a number of routine health checks. He had just been given the all clear to return home, so his death has come to a great shock to all those close to him. Apart from his renown as a traditional musician and long standing member of The Chieftains, Derek was enormously respected in the world of classical music. His passing has left a silence that will never be filled and anyone who has had the honour of meeting him will know that the world will just be a much less interesting place without him. We will all miss him terribly.

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam (our sympathy to his wife and family)."


Irish Harp & Mediaevel Harp:
A national instrument of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, the harp has been played in the British Isles for over a thousand years. Its tradition is particularly rich - one associated with a special class of professional musicians, and bound in poetic and romantic imagery, folklore, and tales of magic.

What we think of as the "Celtic harp" belongs to family of triangular frame harps - that is, a stringed instrument with a neck, soundboard or soundbox, and a forepillar - a structure that may have had its origins among the Pictish and British tribes in Scotland during the early middle ages. The size and construction of this harp was altered from that of the horsehair-strung harps of the Picts to accommodate the high tension of the metal strings characteristic of early Irish harps. The harp that emerged was known variously as the "clairseach" (Ireland), "clarsach"(Scotland) or "cruit" (mostly in Ireland, but also in Scotland).

In Gaelic societies, harpers were professional musicians of high standing. Patronized by the nobility, the harper accompanied the chanting or recitation of the household poet's compositions, composed his own music, played for his patron, patron's family, and guests. He may also have had the duty of playing the household to sleep at night. The harper's music was seen as extraordinary and magical, and certainly many folktales exist that deptict harp music has having the power to seduce, to bind into sleep, to summon spirits or fairies, to awaken the dead. In folklore and in folksong it is an instrument of beauty and sweetness, but also of dangerous otherworldly power.

Today, the harping tradition of Ireland and Scotland is enjoying an impressive renaissance. The Celtic harp draws from the rich heritage of the earlier harp as well as from modern design and woodworking. It is most often strung with gut or nylon, and on occasion with wire. Often, sharping levers are attached on the harmonic curve near the tops of the strings to allow for easy key changes and accidentals, and you can hear virtually any style of music played upon this harp - from classical, to jazz, to pop, and beyond. But the modal music of the Celtic countries still speaks sweetly and profoundly on the Celtic harp. The Celtic harp continues to enchant.

Further Harp Reading:
Grainne Yeats, THE HARP OF IRELAND (Belfast Harpers' Bicentennial Ltd., 1992).

Keith Sanger & Alison Kinnaird, TREE OF STRINGS: a history of the harp in Scotland. (Kinmor Music, 1992).

Ann Heymann, SECRETS OF THE GAELIC HARP (Clairseach Publications, 1988).

Special thanks to Jane Valencia for the above Harp profile. Jane is involved with the Harp Mailing List and several harp-related Web sites. Please see the Baruk Home Page.

Oboe, Oboe D'Amour and Oboe Cor Anglais:
See: The Oboe
This website offers more information on the members of the oboe family that Derek played. There are a number of arrangements that appear on Chieftains recordings in which Derek used the oboe.

See: Harpsichord Information Center

Tiompán (or hammered dulcimer):
There are only vague descriptions of this ancient instrument. There are also many opposing theories on what the tiompán actually was, from a drum to a stringed instrument. An old Gaelic dictionary that defines it as:

      nm. g.v. -ain; pl.+an, cymbal, tabor

What Derek calls a tiompán is a modern day hammered dulcimer. The dulcimer is most likely the modern equivalent to the tiompán.

See Also:
Hammered Dulcimer Page

Thanks to Joseph Mulvanerty for the above tiompán information.


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