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Although best known as the harpist with the Chieftains, Derek Bell's career includes a raft of musical achievements and credits extending into the worlds of both classical and folk music — and he didn't begin playing the harp until he was in his thirties. A major figure in music education as well as music performance, Bell is perhaps the leading Irish harpist in the world, and has done more to elevate the instrument to a level of international respectability before a wider audience than any other musician today.
Born George Derek Fleetwood Bell in Belfast in 1935, Bell was the son of a traditional Irish fiddler, from whom he received his earliest musical training. His own musical inclinations, beginning at age nine, were originally directed in formal classical direction. As a boy, he considered the harp to be "a reward for goodness to be played in heaven." He took up the piano and learned the xylophone, and became a highly proficient reed player, excelling on the oboe and cor anglais. Bell received a degree with honors from the Royal College of Music in London in 1957, and a Bachelor of Music degree from Trinity College in Dublin two years later.
His first musical post was behind the scenes, as manager of the City of Belfast Symphony Orchestra in 1957. He began his performing career on the oboe and the English horn (cor anglais), with which he worked as a soloist with various ensembles thru the mid-'60s. Bell took up the harp in his early thirties with the encouragement of Alan Tongue, the musician/composer/arranger who later introduced him to the Chieftains. He took his first lessons from Sheila Larchet-Cuthbert in Dublin, on an instrument he borrowed from the Irish Arts Council, and later studied with Gwendolyn Mason in London. During this time, he also served as chorus repetiteur and deputy chorus master of the Northern Ireland Radio and TV Orchestra, under his former teacher David Curry (1899-1971), a post he held from 1965 until 1976. In 1970, he joined the faculty of the Belfast Academy of Music and Dramatic Art as a Professor of Harp and Irish Harp. In 1975, Bell also began a career as a harp soloist, touring internationally.
But it was in 1972 that Bell took on the most visible musical activity of his career, when he joined the lineup of the Irish folk group the Chieftains, just in time for the recording of their album Chieftains 4. Bell's arrival — which coincided with the decision by the Chieftains to become a full-time occupation after years of semi-professional activity — and his presence on harp, oboe, and dulcimer greatly extended the range of the group, which had acquired a large following in England and, during the mid-'70s, became an international phenomenon. Their next album, Chieftains 5, their first released by Island Records in England and America, received more exposure than any of their previous work, aided by the group's appearance on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon that same year, which earned them heavily radio play. A tour of the United States allowed the Chieftains to establish themselves on a new continent with hundreds of thousands of new fans.
Partly thanks to his association with the Chieftains, Bell's solo albums, which date from the '70s onward, have been readily available in America, not only at shops catering to Irish and general Celtic interests but better general interest record stores as well. With the arrival of the compact disc, his older albums have been picked up for license in America by the ethnic specialty label Shanachie Records.
Bell's prominence was such that he became the focus and subject of several television shows in England, including Derek Bell's Concert Party for the BBC, in which he was featured playing ten instruments. His interest in Irish folk music has led to his writing numerous arrangements of traditional Irish folksongs for different size ensembles. He has also composed many classical works, and arranged others derived from various ethnic sources, including Hungarian and Peruvian dances; the Toccata Burlesca (a recording of which, with Bell playing eight instruments, has been made), two symphonies, and suite entitled The Violet Flame, and many works for solo harp and orchestra.
His work with the Irish harp, in repertory ranging across many centuries, has helped elevate it from near extinction to one of the most beloved of folk instruments. Along with his work with the Chieftains, Bell continued in his academic work, teaching and playing into the new century. Bell died suddenly on October 17, 2002 after undergoing minor surgery in the United States.