Tragic death was no stranger to Lynn Harrell. The legendary, Grammy winning cellist was 15 when his father died of cancer. Just over two years later, his mother was killed in an automobile accident. By the age of 18, he was on his own.
“It took a long time to come to terms with it,” Harrell later recalled. “It’s an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”
Harrell, who passed away at the age of 76 on April 27, learned to process the deaths through his art.
“Due to much introspection,” he said, “I have learned to recognize the pain that we all experience and that none can escape. Some people have more than others, but we all have it. Part of the artistic experience is to channel these feelings of pain and sadness through music to the listener.”
Harrell’s parents, Mack and Marjorie, were skilled artists in their own right. Mack was a noted baritone at the New York Metropolitan Opera. He made his debut in 1939 and performed regularly there for 13 seasons. At the time of his death, Mack was spending winters teaching at Southern Methodist University in Dallas; in the summer, he was in Colorado where he was a founder of the Aspen Music School and Festival. Marjorie was a concert violinist and a respected professor at the University Of North Texas College Of Music. She was on her way to a concert in Fort Worth when she was involved in a fatal collision.
Harrell’s cello proved to be a lifeline in the midst of this turmoil. He took up the instrument when he was 8, left home after his sophomore year in high school to study with Leonard Rose at Juilliard, and made his concert debut at 16 with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.
Two years later, he auditioned for George Szell, the uncompromising conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra; Harrell so impressed the demanding maestro that he was offered a cellist chair. By the time he turned 20, Harrell was named the principal cellist.
With the proceeds from his parent’s estate, Harrell purchased a 1720 Montagnana cello — the irony that devastating personal tragedy could result in a professional blessing was not lost on Harrell.
“I have found that the resilience of the human spirit is extraordinary,” he observed. “The fact that when the estate was sold that I could buy a Montagnana seems like a bed of roses when compared with what others have had to endure.”
Harrell remained with the Cleveland Orchestra until 1971. Szell, from whom Harrell learned so much, was retiring — if Harrell was going to make the leap from ensemble player to soloist, it was the time.
What followed was one of the most celebrated careers in the modern era of classical music. Harrell recorded more than 30 albums, 10 of which were nominated for Grammy Awards (he won twice). Playing with every major orchestra around the world, he earned accolades like these from the New York Times: “Music is in his bones…most amazing of all is the degree of nuance he has at his command, the great depth of detail in phrasing…he balanced aching lyricism with clear headed directness.” Critics called him the best cellist of his generation.
In concert, Harrell was a dominating figure: at 6 feet 4 inches, he was literally towering, naturally commanding the stage. But there was never a more communicative classical musician: his face was animated, smiling, even laughing during a Haydn piece, solemn and focused for Beethoven.
The influence of his father was pronounced: Harrell firmly believed that cello playing mirrored the human singing voice. He practiced with Mack’s opera records.
Harrell definitely followed in his father’s footsteps at the Aspen Musical Festival. For more than 60 years, he returned to perform and teach at this premier gathering that his father labored to establish. When he was recovering from a serious hand surgery in the late 1990’s, Harrell chose Aspen as a place to rehabilitate: he said it was his spiritual home. The Harrell family has indicated some of Lynn’s cremains will be placed there.
Eben, one of Lynn’s four children, wrote movingly: “My father never stopped reaching out…in middle age, he came to realize how playing the cello was, in part, to cross a bridge to his own deceased musician parents…in his dark moments, he knew his parents remained forever beyond his grasp. Yet he persevered; he was simultaneously comforted, compelled and haunted…audiences around the world are richer for it.”
Lynn Harrell, RIP
For a look at the lighter side of Lynn Harrell, watch this Stephen Colbert poof: