September 30, 2020

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.

* * *

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.

When I think of Smailovic, I remember another man who stood alone in city streets at a time of great turmoil. During the final, climactic week of his earthly ministry, our Lord Jesus Christ stood daily in the midst of a spiritual war zone in Jerusalem, ducking the theological snipers and avoiding the explosive vitriol directed at him.

And what did he do as the world, the flesh, and the devil massed its forces against him that week? He made music. His words and actions were a melody from another realm. Surrounded by disciples failing in courage, fickle crowds, conniving religious leaders, and clueless officials, Jesus nevertheless stood serene, playing heaven’s transforming music while the ugly rubble and senseless deaths piled up around him.

Of course, in that frightening setting Jesus trembled, dreading the prospect of the cross. In private moments he admitted his soul was troubled unto death. He felt the utter loneliness of knowing that his friends and supporters would abandon him. He shrank from the cup he was about to drink. He even took proper precautions that kept him safe until his hour had come.

Nevertheless, like Vedran Smailovic, Jesus kept going out into the mean streets day after day, pointing to another reality.

It strikes me that this sort of thing is also the calling of those who follow Jesus. Our vocation as ambassadors of heaven is to lift a melody of peace while snipers’ bullets fly. To point fearful, besieged captives beyond the chaos to a Kingdom of shalom.

I know it seems silly, really, when you reflect on it. Not very practical. And pretty inconsequential in the long run, don’t you think? What’s a bit of music in a war zone? Not much of a strategy for “changing the world”. Those in charge won’t be happy. What are you going to say when they ask for results?

I won’t try to defend it.

I’d just like to see a few more of us give it a try.


  1. Mark Leberfinger says

    Thank you for sharing this, Chaplain Mike. This really resonates with me, having visited Bosnia for about 6 hours, 10 years ago, on a media trip under the guard of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a tinderbox years later. We definitely need more music-makers there and around the world to share the Kingdom of shalom.

  2. My life was touched by an extraordinary human whose courage was immeasurable. A long time ago, I was working nights at a FidoNet node – this was pre-Internet…back when people informally connected to one another using old-style coupler modems and Ma Bell’s phone lines. Late one night, the phone line rang, the server picked up the call…nothing odd, someone checking in late at night. Then another line rang and another and pretty soon all the lines were busy -an odd thing so late at night. We logged into the server to see what in the world was going on. It was a call routed from China and a girl was sending out message after message about these students in someplace called Tienamen Square. The owner of the BBS node and I had never heard of such a place and thought it was a hoax. But we authenticated the line as coming from China.

    We raced upstairs and turned on a rather new channel…CNN and saw nothing on the news. But she continued to tell her story from her apartment overlooking the square and the stories of the students marching were too fantastical to be a hoax. Her English was poor, but her messages clear…we were witnessing history in the basement of an ordinary house halfway around the world. She mentioned often how frightened she was that they might find her and discover what she might be doing. We waited with bated breath as she would pause to go to the bathroom worried that she’d been discovered and arrested. But she stayed on for hours at huge personal risk to tell the world what was happening. I cried as she described the shots being fired into the crowds. And cried even more when she signed off to get some rest. And cried again as the story broke on CNN the next day and we fully realized the risk she and others had taken to get the word to the outside world.

    She never dialed back in and I never learned of her fate. I never learned her name because she thought it best to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals if word had gotten out about what she had done. But her courage in the face of extreme personal danger was overwhelming to me and I will never forget that night. And neither will the others dialed into our humble BBS network that night.

    I do not know if I have the courage that the nameless Chinese woman or the cellist of Sarajevo had. I would hope that I could muster that…but we have lived relatively sheltered lives, most Americans, and the courage of peaceful protest in the face of imminent death and bodily harm is a muscle that has perhaps gone soft with unuse.

    Thank you for sharing this story with us, CM.

  3. Beautiful post, Chaplain Mike. You are one of my favorite “music makers” out there.

  4. It’s curious that these beautiful and inspiring posts don’t elicit the comments of certain other topics. It seems we like to argue more than share in beauty and tranquility, perhaps Mr. Smailovic needs to play in our war torn culture wars.

    Thank you for reminding me of this heroic act of beauty, I am always forgetting these acts.

    Lord, have mercy on me the sinner.

  5. Art is meant to be shared with the world. Mr. Smailovic was only doing what he was created to do and the world was blessed by it.
    Rich Mullins said in an interview one time that the only reason we do what we do, write, make music, draw, paint, is to bring order out of chaos.

  6. Chip Shepherd says

    CM thought all of you would like to hear the piece of music in the post

  7. What a beautiful story of a man who lived out his vocation.

  8. Chaplain Mike,

    This is powerful stuff! To simply do what one is called to do in the midst of adversity with no regard to self-preservation. Powerful.

  9. humanslug says

    It’s far too easy use the horrors and atrocities of war to promote a nihilistic view of life and a universe absent of God or any certain truth.
    But there’s just something about stories like this that stir the embers of faith and hope inside me — much more so than motivational sermons or testimonies about how God has showered someone with abundant blessings.
    And while extreme circumstances like war can certainly breed despair, occasionally the horror and chaos will ignite something akin to righteous anger or defiance in a person’s soul — and a strong missional urge to declare that hope and truth and love and goodness are still real and alive, and that goodness and truth will ultimately triumph, no matter how much the world around us seems to give evidence to the contrary.
    It’s the kind of faith that inspired a dying criminal to ask another dying man to remember and make a place for him on the other side of death’s dark waters.

  10. While I once thought that God had a ‘big’ plan for my life, I have more and more come to believe that it will be summed up as small and relatively unnoticed. I don’t know about Vedran Smailovic and I’m not even speculating, just supposing. Suppose his entire life’s purpose was to bring those few short moments of grace into the midst of horror. That would be enough. That will continue to echo in the spirit and bring life. I recently read an anecdote about a Rabbi named Zhusya (something like that). He arrives in heaven and looking at God says, “I know, why was I not more like Moses?”. God responds, “No! Why were you not more like Zhusya?”. Being uniquely who we were created to be makes us a portal by which grace flows effortlessly into this weary world. All of our programs and systems look weak and silly by comparison. Be and become what Christ is being and becoming inside you and His will and His plan will rise up like the morning sun. Oh to be a particle of that light.

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