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The magic of music



My mother and I stood at the kitchen sink doing dishes when our neighbor suddenly rushed in to tell us that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. I was 16. Later, it was that same house where our family waited for the bells at the local churches to ring telling us that World War II was over. By then, I was now married and the mother of a son.

At last, I thought, the war to end all wars was over. There would be peace everywhere, forever. My mother reminded me that after WWI, she too believed that war would be the last one. Then came Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf Wars and more conflicts the world over.

Thinking about all of this after listening to more war news on television, I picked up the latest Readers Digest and re-read a story I remembered from a previous issue. It tells the story of one man who would not succumb to the hell of war without doing something. What he was saying was simply: “You may be fighting, but I am going to bring something beautiful into this world, war be damned!” Please forgive my using the rest of my column for his story, but if you haven’t read it, you’ll understand why I present it. Paul Sullivan wrote it and, of course, I must paraphrase

“Every two years cellists gather at the International Cello Festival in England to participate in a concert. There is no piano, no music stand, and no conductor’s podium; there is simply a solitary chair. This year the famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma was to perform and there was a story about the composition he would play. The story goes like this.

“On May 27, 1992, in Sarajevo, one of the few bakeries that still had a supply of flour was making and distributing bread to the starving, war-shattered people. Suddenly, a mortar shell fell killing 22 people. Not far away lived a 35-year-old musician named Vedran Smailovic, who had been a cellist with the Sarajevo Opera. When he saw the carnage from the massacre outside his window, he was pushed past his capacity to absorb and endure any more. He resolved to do the thing he did best: make music.

“For each of the next 22 days at 4 p.m., Smailovic put on his full, formal concert attire, took up his cello, and walked into the midst of the battle raging around him. He placed a chair beside the crater that the shell had made. He played in memory the dead Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor, one of the most mournful and haunting pieces of the classical repertoire. He played in the abandoned streets, smashed trucks, and burning buildings, and to the terrified people who hid in the cellars while the bombs dropped and bullets flew. With the masonry exploding around him, he made his unimaginably courageous stand for human dignity, for those lost to war, for civilization, for compassion, and for peace. Though the shelling went on, he was never hurt.

“After newspapers picked up the story of this extraordinary man, an English composer, David Wilde, was so moved that he, too, decided to make music. He wrote a composition for unaccompanied cello, “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” into which he poured his feelings of courage, love, and brotherhood with Vedran Smailovic. It was this composition that Yo-Yo-Ma was to play that evening.

“Ma came out onstage, bowed to the audience and sat down. The music began, stealing out into the hushed hall, creating a shadowy, empty universe, ominous and haunting. Slowly, it grew into an agonized, screaming, slashing furor, gripping us all before subsiding at last into a hollow death rattle and, finally, back to silence.

“When he had finished, Ma remained bent over his cello, his bow resting on the strings. No one in the hall moved or made a sound for a long time. It was as though we had just witnessed that horrifying massacre ourselves.

“Finally, Ma looked out across the audience and stretched out his hand. An indescribable electric shock swept over us all as we realized it was Vedran Smailovic, the cellist of Sarajevo who rose from his seat and walked down the aisle as Ma left the stage to meet him, and in the center of it all stood those two men, hugging and crying unashamedly.”

And now you know the story of a man who used his music in an unbelievable act of courage and defiance.

Edna Van Leuven is a Churchill County writer.