Remembering cellist Lynn Harrell

Written by Nicky Gluch

“My best performances are when the instrument is just part of me, when I’m still utilizing the mechanics of the box [but it’s just] a stop-gap between what’s inside me and what I want to communicate, when I feel what the music is trying to say.”

To read interviews with Lynn Harrell is to encounter a deep, musical soul. The son of musicians, Harrell was raised, in a way not uncommon to the 1940s, at an emotional arm’s length. It was his childhood cello teacher, Lev Aronson, who thus inspired in him a love for music and for life. Aronson, a Holocaust survivor, was to be a profound influence on Harrell’s musical sensibilities, teaching him to harness the cello’s subtleties as well as its strengths; in 1994, Harrell received the opportunity to honour Aronson when he performed at the first official commemoration of the Holocaust by the Holy See.

Harrell was orphaned at the tender age of 18. His late father, baritone Mack Harrell, had been one of the founders of the Aspen Music Festival and through his connections, Harrell was able to audition for the Cleveland Orchestra. In many ways the orchestra became his adolescent home, and after only two years, Harrell was promoted to principal cellist. He held the position until 1971, before embarking on a solo and teaching career.

It was through his teaching that Harrell met his second wife, Helen Nightengale. Together, they founded HEARTbeats, an organisation that uses music to help children better cope with, and recover from, the challenges of poverty and war. Aside from this voluntary act, Nightengale and Harrell also collaborated on the film Cello, about an aging cellist who suffers from ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). That Harrell would take a thespian turn in his 70s was evidence of a man who saw seniority as a time for new opportunities. His body had been slowing, and he had planned to retire at the end of the season, before COVID cut it short. A month later, Harrell died at his home. We remember him at a time when the world could not.