The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway: THE CELLIST

Verdan Smailovic

Another Look: Making Music in the Midst of Chaos

Note from CM: I just realized it has been twenty years since the events in this account took place. To me, what you are about to read is one of the most remarkable stories of my lifetime. As I re-tell this tale of imaginative grace today, may it fill you with wonder as you read about one man who made music amid the ruins of war.

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Back in the early 1990’s a simple act of heroism caught the imagination of those who learned about it.

On May 27, 1992, Vedran Smailovic, principal cellist for the city opera, was practicing his cello in an upstairs apartment in Sarajevo, in the former Yugoslavia. It was a time of war, and Sarajevo had become ground zero in the conflict. Beautiful Sarajevo. A center of European art and culture, this lovely city had been transformed into a living hell as sniper fire and bombardment from the nearby hills that overlooked its neighborhoods and streets rained down upon its terrified citizens daily.

They called it the Siege of Sarajevo.

Across the way from Smailovic’s apartment, a line of people waited at one of the city’s few remaining bakeries to buy bread. Without warning, an artillery shell fell from the sky and exploded in the midst of the crowd. The cellist, shaken by the blast, ran to his window and looked out through the smoke on a scene of horror. Twenty-two people lay dead. Bread and blood and bone and bricks lay scattered and mingled together in the pulverized pavement.

For Vedran Smailovic, the terror had finally struck close to home, before his very eyes. But he felt helpless to do anything about the fear and uncertainty that now filled every day. His beloved city was plunging headlong into chaos and darkness. Tomorrow it might be his own apartment destroyed.

And so it came to pass that this musician decided to do something that would make the world take notice.

Smailovic determined that he would do what he knew how to do — make music. The next day he dressed in his formal wear, as though for a performance, took his cello and a small plastic stool, and walked out amid the rubble where the bombing had taken place. There, in full public view, Vedran Smailovic played his cello. He would do so for twenty-two consecutive days, to honor each victim of the bakery bombing.

What music did he play? The cellist decided on a sonata by baroque composer Tomaso Albinoni, the Adagio in G Minor. The piece had an interesting history. After the Allies bombed the German city of Dresden in World War II, one of the most fearsome attacks in history, when 1,300 heavy bombers dropped more than 3,900 tons of bombs on the city, destroying 15 square miles of the city’s center, it was said that a composer named Remo Giozotto found a fragment of a composition by Albinoni in the rubble of the city library. The fragment had only four notes, but from that small piece of the sonata, Giozotto composed a work of great beauty and serenity.

Vedran Smailovic was determined that he too would make lovely, tranquil music in the midst of the ugly bedlam that Sarajevo had become. He chose Albinoni’s Adagio.

And so he played, day after day. In time, Smailovic became known as “The Cellist of Sarajevo.” 

Not only did he play in the streets. He also became known for playing at funerals, which was extremely dangerous because such gatherings were targeted by snipers. As his story became known, composers and artists wrote and performed pieces dedicated to him and his courageous performances. He assisted in writing a children’s book to help young people deal with tragedy and uncertainty by performing beautiful, life-affirming acts.