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Derek Bell was born in Belfast on 21 October 1935. His father William Bell, was a banker, a traditional fiddle player and also played in an amateur orchestra. His mother died when Bell was very young. When Derek was two years old his parents received a misdiagnosis from a doctor that their son was going blind. In an effort to develop his sense of hearing Derek’s parents surrounded their young son with musical toys. This resulted in an early aptitude for music. Derek started piano lessons at the age of nine and within two years had composed his first piano concerto.
He was educated at Downey House Preparatory School, Cabin Hill and Campbell College in Belfast. At the age of sixteen he won a scholarship to study composition at London’s Royal College of Music where his teachers included Herbert Howells, Norman Greenwood and Lamar Crowson. During his time there he was awarded the Manns Prize for woodwind. He graduated from the Royal College of Music in 1957. He went on to study music at Trinity College Dublin where he graduated with a MusB in 1959. By now Bell played a number of instruments including piano, oboe, oboe d’amore, cor anglais and cimbalom or dulcimer. He continued to study in Europe and the United States with, among others, British oboist Léon Jean Goossens and Russian pianist Madame Rosina Lhévinne. He appeared as a soloist with many symphony orchestras in Berlin, Moscow, Budapest, Liverpool, Dublin and London and was oboist for four seasons with the American Symphony Orchestra in Pittsburgh.
In August 1957, Derek Bell became the manager of the Belfast Symphony Orchestra. It was only at this stage, in his late twenties, that he began to learn the harp. He made his living as chorus répéiteur and deputy chorus master of the Northern Ireland Radio and TV Orchestra, which he joined in 1965. His harp teachers included Sheila Larchet-Cuthbert in Dublin and Gwendolen Mason in London. Bell also travelled regularly throughout this career to Sea 5 Island, Georgia, United States of America to take lessons from harpist, Artiss de Volt. In 1965 he took up the position of principal harpist and second oboist at the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra. In 1970 he was appointed professor of concert and Irish harp at the Belfast Academy of Music.
Bell met the Irish music group, The Chieftains, in Belfast in 1972. The group were recording a television performance with the BBC orchestra. Bell made some guest appearances with the group after this initial meeting and in 1973 he recorded with them for the first time on their album Chieftains 4 . He officially joined the band in 1974, temporarily retaining his BBC post. By the late 1970s, The Chieftains had become an international attraction, helped by Stanley Kubrick's use of their music on the soundtrack of his film Barry Lyndon (1975). They toured extensively over the next thirty years in Europe, North America and the Far East. Bell's harp added extra colour to the mix of flute, uilleann pipes, fiddle, bodhrán and tin whistles. Bell contributed to more than thirty Chieftains’ albums and won six Grammy Awards with the group.
He maintained his career as a classical composer, writing two symphonies, three piano sonatas and numerous other compositions. He also continued to perform on piano, oboe, pedal harp and a variety of other instruments. He recorded eight solo albums including 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) and Mystic harp II (1999). In 1999, Bell and Liam Ó Conchubhair published a book of Irish songs entitled Songs from the North of Ireland . Two documentaries called Derek Bell: one man band (1977) and Derek Bell’s concert party (1988) were made by producer/director Alan Tongue. Tongue used visual effects to have Bell playing together on Irish harp, concert harp, piano, tiompán, oboe, whistle, bodhrán and double bass.
Bell married his American born wife Stefanie Rees, who was also a harpist, in [1980?], she was originally from San Francisco. He was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000 for his contribution to traditional Irish and classical music. Bell died suddenly on 17 October 2002 in Phoenix, Arizona, after appearing in Nashville as part of The Chieftains’ fortieth anniversary celebrations.