Born to musician parents, Lynn Harrell decided to learn the cello at the age of 8, taking initial lessons with Heinrich Joachim of the New York Philharmonic. When the family moved to Dallas, TX, Harrell found an excellent teacher in Lev Aronson, the first to recognize his talent. Harrell says that Aronson "showed me passion, for the instrument, for music and for life." After high school, he entered the Juilliard School, studying with the renowned Leonard Rose. Harrell then went to the Curtis Institute for further studies with Orlando Cole, who recommended that he join an orchestra as preparation for his desired solo career. Harrell consulted with his godfather, Robert Shaw. At the time Shaw was the choral director of the Cleveland Orchestra under conductor Georg Szell. Shaw arranged an audition for Harrell, who, at the age of 18, won a spot in the orchestra. Two years later, Szell appointed him principal cellist, a position he held until 1971.
Harrell's years at Cleveland yielded a lifelong friendship with the orchestra's associate conductor, James Levine. Levine helped acquaint Harrell with a wide range of repertoire, particularly the music of the post-World War II era. Levine inspired Harrell to study all aspects of his own playing style: "I ripped it apart and built it back together again," he says. Rather than simply learning the cello parts of the orchestral pieces he played, he studied the full scores. He has maintained that habit during his solo career, studying all aspects of the accompaniment to the solo works he plays. He strongly urges string players contemplating a solo career to follow his lead and first play in an orchestra or chamber ensemble. When Szell passed away, Harrell was 27 and felt he was ready to pursue his solo career, so he left the Cleveland Orchestra. For his first engagement in New York, the initial audience turnout was dismal. He subsisted on a small number of concerts, and managed to attract the attention of savvy New York impresarios. In 1972 he was invited to appear as soloist with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The New York Times enthused, "This young man has everything." His career began to build and in 1975 it reached a decisive turning point when he won the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize, launching his solo career into the international limelight.
Subsequently, Harrell has become known as one of the world's finest cellists, performing with the leading ensembles of the world. A special part of his life is the Aspen Music Festival, where he has spent his summers performing and teaching for nearly 50 years. He is the recipient of numerous awards including the Piatigorsky Award, and the Ford Foundation Concert Artists' Award. Before Pope John Paul II and the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Harrell appeared in a 1994 Vatican concert dedicated to the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust, with the Royal Philharmonic conducted by Gilbert Levine. Harrell also appeared on the 1994 Grammy Awards broadcast, performing with Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman. His extensive discography include the complete Bach Cello Suites, numerous premieres, and collaborations with the world's foremost artists.