Harpist with Irish music guardians the Chieftains

Derek Bell, harpist more than 30 years with Irish music guardians the Chieftains, died Oct. 17 in Phoenix after undergoing surgery. He would have turned 67 on Oct. 21.

During his career, he recorded nine solo albums (including harp and piano) and more than 30 with the six-time Grammy-winning Chieftains. He was helping promote yet another Chieftains album, “Down the Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions,” in Nashville (group’s second collaboration with American country music stars) and stayed behind in the U.S. to undergo what was said to be minor surgery when he died. Group is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

Belfast-born child prodigy, known in adulthood for his dry sense of humor and mastery of the harp and its history (even though he didn’t take up the instrument until he was in his 30s), wrote his first concerto at 12, studied at the Royal College of Music (where he received the prestigious Manns Prize) and Trinity College as well as in continental Europe and the U.S. with leading music teachers. He also appeared, as a child or adult, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra as well as ones in Pittsburgh, Moscow, London and Budapest. At one point he was a principle oboe, horn and pianist with the American Wind Symphony Orchestra (he also mastered cor anglais and hammered dulcimer), was a harp professor at the Belfast Academy of Music and a harpist with the Northern Ireland BBC Orchestra before joining the Chieftains in 1972.

All told, he composed three piano sonatas and two symphonies.

He was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth in 2000 for his contribution to traditional Irish and classical music.

He is survived by wife Stephanie, his mother and two sisters.

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