The Musical Conflicts of the Cellist of Sarajevo

From running tracks to tunes to study by, many of us will have musical playlists to suit our varying moods. In the theatre of war, though, music strikes a more important background note. In this post emerging from her journal article on Classical Music and Conflict in the Musico-Literary Novel, Katie Harling-Lee describes the selection, playing, and representation of music in relation to Vedran Smailović.

If I told you that a man played his cello in the middle of a besieged city during a terrible war, you might think I was making it up. Yet that is exactly what Vedran Smailović did during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992.

When 22 people were killed by a mortar shell while waiting in line for bread, Smailović stepped out onto the street with his cello and played the same piece for 22 days: one day for each person killed. Imagine it: a solo cellist amidst the rubble of ongoing armed conflict. It was a sight to behold, and a story that caught international attention, resonating across the sea with Canadian author Steven Galloway, who, inspired by Smailović’s actions, wrote The Cellist of Sarajevo (2008).

But this event, and the stories inspired by it, are tinted with an intriguing murkiness. Smailović was not happy to learn that Galloway had used him as a character in his book without permission, nor did he welcome the renewed public attention. The incident raised debates and questions around whether or not Galloway had a right to write about the cellist and the event. However, Galloway countered that as Smailović’s actions were in public, they were open for literary interpretation and inspiration. Moreover, rather than imagining the character of the cellist in much detail, The Cellist of Sarajevo focuses on three fictional Sarajevan listeners.

It is through these listeners that Galloway explores what most intrigued him about Smailović’s performance: what would it have been like to hear a cellist play to the backing of shelling and gunfire? Could such music provide any hope for citizens struggling to survive? Could the cellist’s music help restore Sarajevo as a safe and stable home?

Along with the ethical questions concerning an author’s right to write about an event, there are additional mysteries in this story. The musical piece that Smailović played, and also the piece that Galloway has the fictional cellist play in his novel, is one of questionable authenticity. The piece, known as Albinoni’s Adagio, was not actually composed by Tomaso Albinoni, an Italian Baroque composer (1671–1751), but by Remo Giazotto, a twentieth-century Italian musicologist (1910–1998).

At least, this is the assumed ‘truth’, for there are few decisive facts about this popular piece. Why? Just after World War Two, Giazotto claimed to have found a fragment of the Adagio in the Dresden library which had survived the 1945 bombings. From this fragment, he reconstructed what has become known as ‘Albinoni’s Adagio’, publishing it in 1958 with Albinoni named as the composer. But, maintaining the mystery, Giazotto never produced the musical fragment he claimed to have found.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its questionable composition history, Albinoni’s Adagio has become a popular classical piece both in concerts and in film scores, such as Gallipoli (1981). You may not recognize the title, but you will likely recognise the piece:

So why, of all pieces, did the Cellist of Sarajevo decide to play Albinoni’s Adagio? For Smailović, the choice was spontaneous rather than intentional:

At some moment, I recognised that the music, pouring from me like my tears, was Albinoni’s Adagio [. . .], the saddest, saddest music I know.

For Galloway, however, the questionable authenticity of the Adagio proves to be a key thematic concern, one that is introduced on the opening page of The Cellist of Sarajevo:

Even those who doubt its authenticity have difficulty denying the Adagio’s beauty. [. . .] That something could be almost erased from existence in the landscape of a ruined city, and then rebuilt until it is new and worthwhile, gives him hope.

Despite these differences, both Smailović and Galloway focus on the beautiful, emotional quality of the Adagio. And more than this, there is a sense of hope that this beautiful piece of music, so out of place in the besieged streets, might bring back a sense of Sarajevo as a home, and not a battleground. In Smailović’s public act, in Galloway’s novel, and in my article, a desperate but hopeful question is posed: what can music do, if anything, in the face of armed conflict?

Katie’s article Listening to Survive: Classical Music and Conflict in the Musico-Literary Novel can be read freely now, open access, in the journal Violence: An International Journal.

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