“It was spontaneous…..believe me!” I had asked Vedran Smalolivic how he had obtained the courage to sit down and play the cello amidst the threat of sniper fire in the ruins of a market in Sarajevo during the Serbian siege of 1992. Vedran’s story is incredible. It’s one that highlights the beauty, frailty, and bravery of human beings. On May 27, 1992, an artillery shell exploded in front of a bakery while people were waiting to buy bread. Twenty-two people were killed with over 100 others severely wounded. It was the beginning of what would be a four-year-long attack of the Bosnian capital; striking daily fear into the hearts of all its people.
The day after the attack, with snipers still in action, Vedran, a cellist with the Sarajevo Orchestra, dressed in his formal concert wear, carried a chair and his cello with him to the ruins of the market. Amidst the ruined buildings, he set his chair down and began playing.
He played Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor. The piece is slow and mournful, yet full of vitality and the beauty of life. And Vedran was celebrating life amidst the loss of it. For the next 22 days, one for each life lost, Vedran walked to the square and played the same piece. People stopped and crowds sometimes gathered, despite the ever-constant threat of sniper fire, amazed at the perseverance of spirit portrayed by Vedran’s moving act. He played at the funerals, a site targeted by the Serbs as a place to further inflict pain.
Mr. Smalolivic’s courage shows us many things, but namely the power of the human spirit and it begs us to look into our role in offering peace and strength during the times it is needed the most and often the hardest to conceive of doing. It makes me wonder how many other heroes throughout time have done timely acts of courage, armed with art. I think of the Drapchi nuns of Tibet, imprisoned in China, smuggling out songs of struggle to their family members. The courage of singers during the Civil Rights Movement, singing while police dogs growled, and buses were burned out. We also hear of tales of spontaneous songs being sung in prison during the Suffragette protestor’s imprisonment days, but how many people are there out there who have lifted the spirits of people torn apart, embattled and facing down fear. Vedran Smaljovic left Bosnia in 1993 and resides currently in Northern Ireland where he lives a quiet life. I asked him how it felt to hear the Adagio after all these years, and all he could tell me was that it made him sad. Yet I wonder if that song is able to bring joy today to those who remember seeing the cellist in the market.
One other act of musical courage, that Mr. Smalolivic’s heroics bring to mind is the premiere of the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovitch’s 7th Symphony. It was Leningrad, the summer of 1942.. One year into merciless bombardment and blockade by the Germans. The city was paralyzed, the violent winter had left bodies to thaw in the streets come springtime. There was nothing to eat, sickness and death were everywhere. It would seem a strange time to put together an orchestra. Mr. Shostakovitch had just finished his sublime 7th Symphony, which he began in 1941 completed in the heart of the struggle. When the conductor was called to get the orchestra ready, there was no functioning orchestra left in the dire city. Only 15 members reported to the first rehearsal. The log read, “rehearsal did not take place. Srabian is dead. Petrov is sick. Borishev is dead.” The musicians that did appear had scarcely the energy to lift their instruments. Not ones to accept defeat easily, the Soviets ordered all musicians to report to the next rehearsal. The next couple months found a starving, weak orchestra barely mustering the strength to get through the whole symphony. They never did, in fact, until the day of the premiere.
On the day of the premiere, with the German forces surrounding the city, the Soviets set up loudspeakers around the once-majestical streets of Leningrad as the orchestra prepared to play. The people of Leningrad were fearful of death and bombs during the performance, but nothing would stop the people from crowding the streets to listen. It was reported the German soldiers also stopped to listen and there was no fire or fighting during the symphony. It is said that the whole city and all the troops of both sides temporarily found peace for an hour. When the orchestra hit the last note, there was a moment of silence, before a tremendous eruption of applause. A great triumph! Even in wartime, people need music.