An Interview with Derek Bell

Derek Bell (1935-2002) was best known as a musician with The Chieftains. He was the first performer to record two albums of Carolan music.

The following pages are taken from two interviews with Bell conducted by Art Edelstein and reproduced here by kind permission of the author from his book Fair Melodies: Turlough Carolan: An Irish Harper. East Calais, VT: Noble Stone Press, 2001.

Derek Bell on Carolan's Music

What are the importance of Carolan as a historical figure and his importance in general?

Anyone who could wander around with a harp and be equally friendly received by the Anglos as by the Irish, contributing something very important to the bridging of the gaps between the two sides. . .it's of colossal importance. The number of people who came to his funeral proves that. He was a character of more than just harpistic importance. His melodic gift is of more importance. One can detect very old influences in certain of his music, in the "Farewell to Music" and various laments. If the "Lament for O'Neill" is not a folk song I don't know what it is. It's as good as any air we've got.

Carolan's Concerto

Carolan's Concerto

Carolan is said to have composed this piece of music during a duel of musical mastery with Italian composer Geminiani whom he met in one of the big houses where both performers were staying.

Courtesy of Dearbhail Finnegan

  could be described as a two-part bouree. It isn't a concerto. You could call it his symphony or concerto if several musicians are sounding together in it.

The Planxtys are slower than the jigs. "Planxty Maguire" is 2/4 time but I don't think it ever was a Planxty. I don't think "Planxty Davis" is a Planxty. The title is "The Two William Davis."

I think certain deaths, like O'Neills and "Terrence MacDonough's moved him a lot because the laments were pretty lamentable. Except the one he wrote for himself was the best of all."

Did Carolan have enough talent to be a serious European Art composer?

The answer is would a blind man have been able to submit to the grilling counterpoint, harmony, theory that Soliari and Albrecht would have given him in Vienna, which John Field turned it down and Beethoven received.

On my second record I scored five numbers for harp and string orchestra. The slow ones for no other purpose than to carpet the harp, but the fast ones I wrote were elaborately contrapuntal. It was a joke of mine to try to perpetrate on the world something I thought Carolan would have come up with had he actually had such training. Beethoven is thought to have said that had Carolan had a European training, he could have become one of the greatest European composers.

They say he wasn't a good harper but I'm inclined to take that with a certain scepticism or qualification. Some of his pieces are so difficult it's hard to imagine that anyone would have conceived music for the instrument had he not been a jolly good player himself.

I actually had a much greater respect for him when I charted out the music I wanted to play."

What is a Planxty?

Nobody knows the meaning of the word Planxty. It does not mean Sláinte. Donal O Sullivan's [Carolan's biographer] idea was that Carolan was fascinated by hearing the priests talk Latin and he loved it but couldn't speak any. So he wanted to pretend to his own learning and he had such a musical ear that he was able to make up his own fake Latin which sounded just like Latin. A word like Planxty is an onomatopoeic reference to the plunking of the wire harp string and he decided to make up his own little word. That's my theory.

What is the importance of Carolan's music now, for listeners and for Irish music and harp music?

We only have the tunes, so it can mean anything a given arranger would like it to mean, because the arranger has all the power over it to give it deep spiritual value or only temporary entertainment value.

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