Lynn Harrell’s son: My father never stopped reaching out

Eben Harrell has shared with us his reminiscences of a marvellous, multi-skilled Dad.

I am sitting on the banks of a high-mountain creek in Southwest Colorado trying to conjure my father, the cellist Lynn Harrell, who died this week at age 76. The water is high from the spring run-off and I do not know if I will find much clarity. But as I approached the banks and heard the water-music build in intensity, I knew I had come to the right spot.

My father loved to fish these alpine streams. He shared that passion with me in the summers when I would follow him to Colorado for the Aspen Music Festival, where he was a mainstay for many years. My father was an incredibly talented man—perhaps the finest cellist of his generation, he was also, at times, a 4.5 USTA-rated tennis player, a single handicap golfer (despite taking up the game as an adult) and a 1800 Elo-rated chess player. Yet he was an enthusiastic but quite ineffectual fly-fisherman. He fished because he enjoyed the poetics of dry-fly fishing—the umbilical connection to nature that a fly-line provided, and the magic of summoning wild trout from the depths simply by dancing shadows across a river’s surface.

We spoke often about the powerful ending to Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, in which the author–an old man alone on the river—uses the rhythm of fly-casting and poetry to try to summon memories of lost loved ones. “Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead,” Maclean writes, pausing a beat to let the power of his line gather behind him. “But I still reach out to them.”

My father never stopped reaching out. It is what made him such a great musician. In middle age he came to realize how playing the cello was, in part, an attempt to cross a bridge to his own deceased musician parents, particularly his father, a great singer who died when Lynn was still a teenager. He chose the cello as his instrument, he later realized, because of its proximity in range and expression to his father’s voice, and also the posture of its player, which is one of embrace. He obsessively listened to his father’s recordings and spent hours in his practice room honing his technique in the hope of recreating his father’s sound. Among instrumentalists he perhaps came closest to achieving a singing quality in his playing, but in his dark moments he knew his parents remained forever beyond his grasp. Yet he persevered; he was simultaneously comforted, compelled and haunted by the quest. Audiences around the world are richer for it.

This sounds depressing, but I believe it is the opposite. It is life-affirming. Like any great artist, my father understood that art is the only way (perhaps other than religion) to reconcile life’s most tragic elements. It offers moments—just moments—of transcendence. This is why even the most ravaged dementia or amnesia patient can hum their way through a melody without losing their way. T.S. Eliot wrote of “music that is heard so deeply/ that it is not heard at all, but you are the music, while the music lasts.”

There’s a memory I have of my father’s playing when I was a child. It’s one of the first memories. I was ill in bed with a fever. Someone (my mother?) put on my father’s recording of Bach’s cello suites. The Bach suites were written from the inspiration found through one man’s relationship with God. They are meditative, devout, at times exultant in their attempts to summon a celestial harmony. In my feverish state, I remember thinking that my father was actually in the room with me, talking to me, soothing me. When I listened to them in later years as an adult, Bach’s efforts to communicate a strong, out-of-body euphoria, the scales that unfold like a ladder dropped down from heaven, take me back to that night as a child, when I felt my father’s presence in an empty room.

 

A warm, emotive man with an impish sense of humor and an easy, booming laugh, my father was easy to love. But he was never great at human relationships, and he could hurt people close to him. When I was twenty he divorced my mother and threw himself into a new marriage. When they had two kids, his attention turned to building a new life with them, and he abandoned almost all his previous friends in favor of a new social circle, which I never understood and, if I’m honest, never truly forgave. It was a great paradox at the heart of the man: when he was with you, he was so totally present, but then he could disappear, sometimes forever. I am sometimes haunted by the critic George Steiner’s warning that the student of art “may begin to hear the shouts in the poem louder than the shouts in the street.”

I do not write about this side of my father in bitterness or acrimony. Some of the people once close to my father feel aggrieved. But many feel as I do: grateful for the time with a flawed but incredible artist. My father once told me that when my grandfather Mack Harrell sung Bach’s Cantata, “Ich Habe Genug,” he insisted that program notes not contain the traditional translation—“I am fulfilled” but rather “I ask for no more.”

For many years now, even when we saw one another only once or twice a year, my father’s recordings have been the connective tissue that kept us close. So it will continue to be. His playing is how I want to remember him. Befitting the instrument itself, much of the cello’s greatest repertoire has mourning at its core. I think of the longing melodies of Dvorak’s cello concerto, written with great homesickness after Dvorak moved to America, or the arpeggios—the broken chords–that open the Elgar concerto, perhaps the most profoundly sad opening to any work of art. (“If you want to feel the tragedy of World War I,” my father once told me in one of our long, unforgettable discussions about music, “Listen to the opening bars of the Elgar. An entire society cracked apart, the scalding sadness and cumulative regret of so many lives cut short. It’s all there in just a few opening notes.”)

And so it is.

The challenge for the cellist wishing to master this aspect of the repertoire is to be defiantly mournful—to earn redemption from the heartbreak by showing the audience the beauty inherent in loss. Through the power and physicality of his playing, his near flawless technique, and the singing, human quality of his sound, I believe my father delivered this transcendence in his recordings and performances.
As a child one of my favorite pieces that my father played was Schubert’s An Die Musik, a song also sung by my grandfather. My father read the lyrics at my wedding four years ago.
‘Du holde Kunst, in wieviel grauen Stunden,
Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt,
Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb entzunden,
Hast mich in eine bessre Welt entrückt!”

“O sublime art, in how many bleak hours,
When the wild tumult of life ensnared me,
Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Have you carried me away to a better world!”

I have just started the process of grieving and I know there will be much pain and mourning ahead. But as I sit by the playful, gurgling river, I know the memories that scald now will soothe me later. And when I reach out for my father, he will always be there. Music was the best of him. It is the best of us all.

(c) Eben Harrell


Lynn Harrell playing Bach at the border of South and North Korea, April 27, 2019.

 

share this

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on google
  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    A beautiful tribute.

  • E says:

    this is astonishing, honest, and beautiful writing, and my heart goes out to you

  • Straussian says:

    What a profoundly moving and intensely personal tribute to his father by Eben Harrell. I’ve read it three times now, each time I felt the power of the words in my heart. Thank you.

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    I see that the son is Senior editor at Harvard Business Review. No wonder he writes so well

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    Wow. That’s great writing. Thank you!

  • Kate walker (nee harrell) says:

    Thank you so much – this was our dad to a tee

  • Dan Wardrope says:

    Beautiful Eben. Our thoughts are with you and family.

  • Player says:

    What a beautiful, thoughtful essay.

    I had the privilege of accompanying Lynn Harrell when he played as soloist with my orchestra. He was wonderful and funny, especially on one occasion when he woke up late for the morning rehearsal. He hurried out to take his spot on stage, embarrassed and apologetic, his hair a complete mess. Of course, once he started to play, I was drawn in and mesmerized by his sound. I’ll never forget it.

    He had a warmth and complexity that made him so relatable and human, despite his giant musical stature.

    It’s clear from your writing that you, Eben, are also a tribute to his legacy. I’m very sorry for your loss.

  • Most beautiful tribute to the great Lynn Harrell by his son. That is exactly how I will remember him – in many wonderful concerts together, and joyful, even hilarious stories with him. In spite of seeing him so little in the last decade or so, he will always be in my heart as Lynnsky, my dear pal and one of the kind human being.

  • Christopher Pegis says:

    I really get that article. I studied with Lynn while I was in high school in Rochester NY. I was completely star struck. After almost 2 years Lynn quite correctly told me that I needed to work with a teacher once a week, not the maybe once a month that I was seeing him. Though I understood the logic, I feared I would lose the connection so though I began working with one of Lynn’s recommended teachers, I found ways to participate in his masterclasses in the summer. So it was that I found myself in Nova Scotia wondering how he would react to my popping up in a “hi, remember me?”, moment. He was absolutely fine with my reappearance but… it was also clear in his demeanor that I wasn’t his student anymore. I really wanted his attention nevertheless so I had to get creative. My master class performance had gone very well but once it was done, his attention went elsewhere. Fortunately Lynn was getting very enthusiastic about chess and unbeknownst to him, chess had been a big part of my upbringing due to my grandfather being a grandmaster. Lynn was playing chess with anyone who was game so I stepped up. I was rusty but… ( not to sound immodest), but I won fairly convincingly. I finally, really had his attention even more so perhaps, then the masterclass. Though a very good sport, Lynn wasn’t going let me go until he beat me. He did at some point of course. What he didn’t know is that I couldn’t of cared less about the game. It was all a way to get his attention.

  • V.Lind says:

    That is probably the best thing I have ever read on this site. A beautifully-written and deeply felt tribute to a good and great man, all the more powerful for not sanctifying him but because it presents him honestly through eyes that have seen him in many ways. And who still loves.

    This is something that deserves wider circulation, because it would mean something to everyone who has ever lost a dearly loved one. It says so much about the real meaning of love.

    • Suzanne says:

      Hear, hear! Am in total agreement with you, V.Lind. I intend to bring this to the attention of my “circle” for sure. Your last paragraph says it all. Exquisite writing, Mr. Harrell!

  • Bernard Caplan says:

    What a magnificent tribute! As sensitive & beautiful as his father’s playing.
    I note the quote from George Steiner, another towering intellectual giant we lost earlier this year.

  • Ernest Low says:

    So beautifully written and so uplifting, especially in these troubled times. Thank you.

  • Carole says:

    What a beautifully written tribute.

  • Claudia Stevens says:

    Thank you for this moving tribute and your observation about beauty inherent in loss. I did not know your father, but many of my friends did. I grew up listening to Bruno Walter’s recording of Beethoven’s Ninth with your grandfather singing, “O Freunde, nicht diese Tone.” The concert to commemorate the Holocaust and your father’s Kol Nidrei performance will be with me.

  • Amos says:

    Anyone who isn’t familiar with the recording will likely enjoy Mr. Harrell’s playing of the Elgar concerto. To my mind it is one of the best examples of his ability to make the cello sing in all registers. IMO the playing of the Cleveland Orchestra is as always stellar but Lorin Maazel’s conducting is all over the map and exemplifies why he wasn’t the orchestra’s first choice.

    The reference by Mr. Harrell’s son to A River Runs Through It reminded me of what an under appreciated film it is!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nY6KMCH16P0

  • Cynthia says:

    I recalled in April how thankful I was when Mr. Harrell stepped forth so quickly to comfort us new Yorkers with a free concert (i bet it was the bach suites) just after 9/11. God bless him on his way!

  • Lindsay.ewart@btconnect.com says:

    Wonderfully put Eben I find myself getting emotional reading this you wrote this from your heart l feel your father is extremely proud of you .

  • Marrha Potter Kim says:

    Lynn has always been inspirational to all who were fortunate enough to be in his orbit, even a little bit. In my case, that happened during my many years at Meadowmount. He played the cello like a god. Then seeing him put the big career on hold until his younger sister had time to grow up – it seemed so right and so selfless. I certainly did not see it as a mistake. He just did what he thought was right! Thank heavens that Szell, Moyse, Casals and others knew what was going on and were there to step up and mentor him back, and further into, the ecstatic music making that had gone (temporarily) underground. When he did emerge into the spotlight he deserved and owned, his voice was even more authoritative and assured than ever.
    Thank you so much for your moving tribute to your father. My heartfelt condolences to you for this wrenching loss. You put it much better, but the life has pinnacles and it has troughs.
    If we hold to our memories of the heights, the view will sustain us in harder times.
    An Die Musik! Of course.

  • Adam Stern says:

    Thank you so much, Mr. Harrell. My very best and warmest wishes to you, your family, and your father’s memory.

  • Thank you so much for this, Eben. It was very comforting to read this as I, too begin the process of grieving. I have had the privilege of playing with your dad since 1999 beginning at the aspen music festival where I also met you, kate and your mom. He treated me as a colleague from the very beginning, and would always refer to me as his sonata partner, and corrected anyone that called me otherwise. He became very much like a father figure to me over time, and a trusted confidante. He helped shaped me into the musician that I am today. He will always occupy a special place in my heart. My condolences to you and your family. -vsa

    • Eben Harrell says:

      Victor, I wrote to you on Facebook but also want to say it publicly: How can I ever thank you for the music you made with my father, for being at his side all those hours and all those performances, very much his creative partner? What a gift to give my father and those whom loved him!

  • Benny Kim says:

    Wonderful reading this, Eben. I mourn with you the loss of your extraordinary father. You probably don’t remember me but I knew you and Katie when you were very young.
    I was blessed to have been able to spend much time performing with your dad, playing golf and laughing so hard we would be crying!
    I will miss him deeply. My thoughts to you and hope you are well and safe.

  • Keith MacLeod says:

    Your thoughts and writings of your father are beautiful.
    I had the greatest pleasure and experience to perform with your father 3 times in my career. Because I had studied clarinet with his colleague in The Cleveland Orchestra we had that connection for conversation. He was very approachable and gregarious. He was always happy to chat and reacquaint whenever I ever I had the pleasure of seeing him.
    His music making was legendary and I treasure the memories of his playing.

  • Jane Harrell Nealson says:

    Oh! Eben! This is so beautiful. Brings back memories of sitting together at the Roaring Fork River in Aspen, Co. amazed at the running, roaring water that never stopped or slowed. Such sunny wonderful days we spent there.

  • Enquiring Mind says:

    I havn’t read a word from Yo Yo Ma anywhere.

    Well, anyway, Lynn Harrell has been my favorite cellist for the past 45 years. I can feel the pain in the author’s tribute but it is a beautiful one.

  • Alannah Ong says:

    Dear Eben,
    Through music, your father ‘s love will stay with you forever! He was an amazingly talented musician, will be missed always!
    He was also the Director of the Royal College of Music, where I graduated. He will keep on performing for us in Heaven!
    With love,
    Alannah Ong

  • Eric says:

    Oh dear Eben, how beautifully you pay tribute and homage to your father! I had the pleasure of calling your dad my teacher for 3 years while at Juilliard. I have fond memories of trundling up to your apartment on W. 86th st. for lessons whenever your dad was in town (I think you and Katie were 2 when I first started taking lessons from him). The sound of you two screaming and crying in the background were comforting to me while your dad was changing my world. I also got to play tennis with your dad as well as golf with the both of you. He was a great athlete to say the least (you were pretty darn good yourself!). I feel so lucky to have had him in my life.

    I am so sorry for your loss…

  • fflambeau says:

    Lovely. Beautifully written and shows that Harrell himself had a “dark side”.

  • Rebecca Penneys says:

    Thank you for this beautiful tribute.

  • harvey s.wolfe says:

    I knew Lynn since he was 14 at Aspen. I was 10 years older. We were at Meadowmount together a couple years later when I heard him play the Franceour sonata-luminous playing. He was principal cello in Cleveland when I joined in 67.We have always been friends and enjoyed many laughs together. I am very touched by your memoir,and I grieve with you along with so much of the music world. He woulkd talk to me about the Elgar and the depth of feeling and tragedy within it. I will miss him greatly. harvey wolfe

  • Diego Roncalli says:

    Can’t stop thinking of him and hearing his music since that sad day….I never met him, nor I saw him performing live, but from so far, in Italy, I grew up in my cello studies dreaming every day of his expressive sound and, what passionates
    so much every string student his sweet, unique and inimitable portamenti. Thank you, Mr Eben Harrell. Sleep well, Lynn

  • Eben Carsey says:

    Dear Cousin Eben, this is such a beautiful and poignant remembrance, sharing a seance with your father. Reading this, I find myself remembering another quote from the same work of Norman Maclean that you referenced, a quote that has comforted me as I have continued to reach out to those whom I have loved and did not understand, “… you can love completely without complete understanding.” Durango is not too far from Boulder.

  • Nola Matthews Thole says:

    Eben,

    In late spring of 1971 in Cleveland, your father told me how he spent many hours of his very young years under the piano in his home while your grandfather sang and taught lessons. He said those experiences formed his understanding of the cello as the human voice. To truly become a cellist he urged me to listen repetitively to recordings of Caruso and every tenor performing artist with a beautiful tone and ability to move hearts; his passion was to share with others that to understand the voice was to understand cello.

    As your reminiscence touched on his obsession with his father’s voice, I was magically transported to those very moments when he shared those thoughts with me. Though I could not afford to continue study with him as my teacher, his generosity in granting an audition and a followup lesson to a pianist who desperately desired to play cello, inspired me to pursue my dreams to perform as a cellist. Performing since 1973 as a cellist with Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra with many of the world’s finest soloists and teaching for over thirty years as a public school orchestra teacher enabled me to share your father’s inspiration.

    Thank you for the intense and intimate sharing of your memories and feelings. Your father’s and grandfather’s love of the human voice live on in your voice.

  • Sarah ( Sally)Anthony says:

    Beautiful tribute to your father, Lynn! I was a class mate of your dear father in Preston Hollow, Benjamin Franklin Jr.Hi and Hillcrest❣ I always admired him and his musical gift❣My sincere condolences to all of the family.

  • >