Contact Us

In Memoriam

Professor Sebastian "Bas" Bell, FRAM, HonRCM

It is with sadness and deepest regret that we announce the death of Bas Bell on September 21st 2007, the co-author of our Professional Flute Fingering Chart.

As the obituaries below will testify, Bas was an extraordinary man.

I first met Bas nearly 30 years ago when he stepped-in at short notice for an indisposed Trevor Wye on a weekend residential course for Flautists at Benslow Hills in Hitchin , Hertfordshire. As a 41 year old adult beginner, I had then only been playing the flute for some six weeks. Because other students were reluctant to be a "guinea pig", I volunteered to assist Bas in his lecture and in return received a superb lesson in embouchure formation. The value to me was immense and that 15 or so minutes was worth the entire fee for the weekend course. Bas's teaching and performing was so inspirational that I left the course absolutely determined to be a music teacher, despite my advancing years.

Over the ensuing years, I attended several more courses with Bas and never ceased to marvel at his beautiful playing and his warm and friendly approach to teaching. I was also astonished to realise that I had unconsiously developed a teaching style that emulated Bas's. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery".

Bas has gone, but he leaves a huge legacy of highly skilled professional Flautists who have all had the wonderful experience of being taught by him. My own students have all benefitted by learning in turn the lessons that I learnt from this master of the flute, much of which is included in our publications. He is vey much missed but never forgotten.

Peter Moore
Reproduced with permission from The Classical Source
Sebastian Bell Dies Aged 65

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The London Sinfonietta, on behalf of his family, announces with regret that flautist Sebastian Bell has died on 21 September, aged 65, shortly after being diagnosed with cancer. He was widely acknowledged as one of the finest flautists of his generation and an extraordinary interpreter of modern and contemporary repertoire.

Sebastian’s colleagues have paid tribute to his musicianship and life.

John Constable, pianist and a colleague in the London Sinfonietta, said: “Bas’ death has robbed the Sinfonietta of a truly great player and me of a very close friend. His playing and his commitment to the ideals of the group epitomize what the Sinfonietta stands for. He filled every phrase he played on everything from the piccolo to the bass flute with imaginative musicality.“

Composer and conductor, Oliver Knussen, added: “Bas was the intelligent, committed musician personified. He played marvellously, of course, and as well as being a superb ensemble player had an authoritative and distinctive stage presence as a soloist. He tackled technical challenges thoroughly and with apparent relish. In rehearsal and performance he was amazingly alert, a joy for the conductor because you never had to get his attention. He was always there, always aware of what was going on and, most importantly in uncharted territory, aware of what could occur. It is difficult indeed to imagine his absence, and I will miss him very much.”

Born on 19 October 1941, Sebastian Bell studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Gareth Morris. He began his career with Sadler's Wells Opera, before being appointed Principal Flute of the BBC Welsh Orchestra at the age of 21.

For four decades he has been at the forefront of the contemporary music movement in the UK, appearing with trail-blazing ensembles such as The Fires of London and, most notably, the London Sinfonietta; he was Principal Flute of the London Sinfonietta since it was formed in 1968. His commitment to contemporary music has also been captured in his many recordings, including Toru Takemitsu’s Toward the Sea with guitarist John Williams and George Benjamin’s Antara (which won the Gramophone Contemporary Music Award in 1990).

Sebastian was flute professor at both the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music. He enjoyed an international reputation as a specialist in restoring and voicing antique flutes, and as a manufacturer of flute head-joints.

Outside music, his interests included painters and paintings, architecture and ceramics - particularly Delft and Middle Eastern pottery c.1300-1750. He also had a passion for boating; he designed and restored boats, was a partner in a residential marina, and in 1983 came fourth in the IIIc National Power Boat Championships.

The London Sinfonietta will dedicate its performance, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, on 1 October to Sebastian.

Reproduced with permission from The Classical Source,

Sebastian Bell
Celebrated and versatile flautist who was a leading light in new music

Sebastian Bell was one of this country's outstanding flautists, and a leading interpreter of contemporary music. As principal flute of the London Sinfonietta from the ensemble's foundation in 1968 until his death, he was a prominent figure in the world of new music, greatly admired by the many composers for whose work he was such a persuasive advocate. Armed with a dazzling technique and a fastidious approach to detail, he was well equipped to deal with whatever difficulties composers could throw at him. But he also had great style and musicality, and hearing him as soloist in a work such as Pierre Boulez's explosante-fixe, one was struck more by the beauty of the playing than by his mastery of the work's considerable complexities.

Giles Sebastian Bell was born in Oxford in 1941, the only child of the artist Eileen Bell and Randall Bell, a surveyor. His parents moved to North London when he was a child, and he attended King Alfred School in Golders Green. At 9, and encouraged by his parents - his mother was a keen amateur musician - he took up the flute, and at the unusually young age of 16 won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied with Gareth Morris. On leaving the RAM Bell immediately joined the orchestra of Sadler's Wells Opera, where he stayed for two years before moving to Cardiff to become, at 21, principal flute of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

After four years in Wales, Bell decided to resign his position there and return to London to freelance. As well as appearing with various London orchestras and ensembles, he regularly played for National Theatre productions at the Old Vic, and as a session musician for films and popular music. He also performed frequently with the Venturi Ensemble, a chamber group he had founded with colleagues from the BBC orchestra in Cardiff to perform an enterprising range of repertoire.

In 1968 the conductor David Atherton, who had met Bell on the London orchestral scene, along with Nicholas Snowman, invited him to join a new ensemble to perform contemporary music. The London Sinfonietta was founded at a time when British musical life was on the verge of great change. The music of the European avant-garde, much performed and discussed in France and Germany but hitherto regarded with suspicion here, was suddenly attracting great interest. The Sinfonietta - whose players were not merely new music specialists but also excelled in earlier repertoire - was founded to provide a top-notch ensemble to play such works, and those of a new and highly distinguished generation of British composers.

During almost 40 years with the London Sinfonietta, Bell played in several hundred world premieres, working with composers including Luciano Berio, Elliott Carter and Harrison Birtwistle. His distinctive sound, forthright but never overbearing, undoubtedly affected the approach of many composers who have written for the ensemble. Bell made many recordings, perhaps most notably a disc including George Benjamin's Antara and Boulez's Memoriale which won a Gramophone award in 1990.

Although a devotee to contemporary music (he also played regularly for Peter Maxwell Davies's group Fires of London in the 1970s), Bell disliked being termed a specialist, and was a fine interpreter of much earlier repertoire. A stylish Bach player, he was an early member of the Steinitz Bach Players, and for some years was principal flute of the New Queen's Hall Orchestra, for which he swapped his usual silver Louis Lot instrument for a wooden Rudall Carte to play music of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Bell maintained all his flutes himself: finding flute technicians' waiting lists too long, he decided to learn their skills and became a respected restorer of antique instruments, bringing his characteristically meticulous approach to the craft.

In 1974 Bell was appointed Professor of the Flute at the Royal College of Music; in 1985 he succeeded his teacher Gareth Morris at the Royal Academy of Music, eventually becoming head of woodwind before retiring in 2005. He loved teaching (although flute guidance was the preferred phrase), producing an enviable succession of distinguished players.

An avuncular and genial man, Bell was a popular figure in the musical world, which knew him universally by the monosyllable “Bas”.

In 1968 he married Elisabeth Harrison. She and their two daughters survive him.

Sebastian Bell, flautist, was born on October 19, 1941. He died on September 21, 2007, aged 65

Have your say

I went to school in Golders Green with Bas and we were good friends in the same class at KAS and about the same age . In my teens I attended some of his concerts. My only regret is that since I left England in 1967 I never managed to see him again

Paul Papadopoulos, Athens, Greece

As the obituary writer kindly recalls, Sebastian Bell was indeed an early member of my husband's Steinitz Bach Players He became an integral part of the annual performances of Bach's Matthäus-Passion we presented in particular, and given during the years prior to the orchestra's exclusive use of period instruments. 'Bas' was a joy to work with and a complete professional. His command of the very demanding flute solos in Bach's repertoire showed how great sensitivity to period style can be equally satisfying for the listener when played on his modern flute. We also found him to be an endless source of amusing stories and anecdotes, told during rehearsal breaks with that familiar twinkle in his eye and punctuated by an infectious laugh . The musical world has lost not only one of its great characters but also a versatile and gifted musician.

We shall remember him with gratitude and affection.

Margaret Steinitz - London Bach Society
(Mrs. Paul Steinitz)

Margaret Steinitz, Old Oxted, Surrey

Have your say

Reproduced from TimesOnline

Michael Cox The Guardian, Wednesday November 14 2007

Sebastian Bell, who has died from cancer aged 65, was widely acknowledged as one of the finest of British flute players and teachers of his generation and a founder member of the London Sinfonietta. Although renowned as a leading exponent of contemporary music, he never considered himself a specialist.
Born in Oxford, Bas (as he was generally known) was the son of an artist and a surveyor, who moved to north London when he was a child. He attended King Alfred school, Golders Green, and won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music to study with Gareth Morris. He left his studies there incomplete when he joined the orchestra of Sadler's Wells at the age of 18. Two years later he was appointed principal flute of the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, where he remained for four years. On his return to London he enjoyed a wonderfully varied and wide-ranging musical career working as soloist, orchestral, chamber, pop and film session musician, teacher, administrator, instrument renovator and flute head-joint maker.

In 1968 he was invited by David Atherton and Nicholas Snowman to become a founder member of the London Sinfonietta. Their ambition was to persuade leading musicians of the day to form an ensemble dedicated primarily to avant garde music. The group was a success and brought an entirely new benchmark level of commitment, musicianship and attainment to the performance of contemporary music. With the London Sinfonietta, Bas performed in hundreds of first performances and worked with many of the greatest contemporary composers: Messiaen, Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio, Ligeti, Carter, Tippett, Takemitsu, Henze, Adams and Birtwistle.

Members of the ensemble came to think of him as an artistic compass for the group. Extraordinarily, given the verve and fastidiousness he was still bringing to his work right up until his death, next year would have marked Bas's 40th year with the ensemble.

Bas loved, and loved to play, old French flutes. Finding it difficult to find technicians to get his instruments working to his satisfaction, he showed a typically practical and hands-on approach by teaching himself the necessary skills. In no time he became a leading specialist in the field with instruments for repair, voicing and renovation being sent to him from around the world. In like manner, when faced with an uncharacteristic bout of performance nerves, he took up powerboat racing which, he said, scared him witless, thereby increasing his understanding of fear and nerves and his control of them. In 1983 he came fourth in the national marine power boat championship series.

He taught at the Royal College of Music from 1974 to 1985 before moving to the Royal Academy of Music where, with William Bennett, he formed a new department which, for many years, was considered the best available. He was an inspired teacher with a rich legacy of students. His eclectic and individual mind led to a unique teaching style that, in one lesson, could range from direct and intensely practical advice on flute-playing to Sufi poetry, earthenware glazes and boat-design efficiency.

He had an extraordinary gift for understanding and bringing out both the best and the individuality of each student, working with unflinching commitment until each achieved his perception of their potential.

Also a talented administrator, Bas sat on the council of the London Sinfonietta for many years, and, in 1990, became head of woodwind of the Royal Academy of Music. During his tenure he fought passionately for greater opportunity for students andchamber music. Before retiring from the academy in 2005 he was awarded professorial status by the University of London; his inaugural lecture was on different systems of musical notation.

He met his wife Lis, a singer, in a crowded studio canteen. They were married for 39 years and had two daughters. Their house on Eel Pie island , in the Thames at Twickenham, stands next to a boatyard and slipway that he owned and managed. As a player Bas had a prodigious technique, great tonal flexibility, rare insight into the composer's modus operandi and an extraordinarily centred resonance. He could digest the nuts and bolts of detail and mechanics with ease and at the same time form an often highly individual overview that others often found helpfully illuminating and perspicaciously challenging.

He was very popular within the profession and supportive of talented young players and those he felt were being taking advantage of or had fallen on hard times, often in a very practical way. He set himself very high standards and hoped to find them in others. Above all he stood out for his integrity and generosity of spirit.

· Sebastian Bell, flautist, born October 29 1941; died September 21 2007

Reproduced from The Guardian