November 26, 2020

Making Music in Midst of Chaos

By Chaplain Mike.

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 art and culture in Europe. Now transformed into a living hell each day by sniper fire and bombardment from the nearby hills that overlooked its neighborhoods and streets. They called it the Seige 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 purportedly 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 read that story today, during Holy Week, I thought of Jesus. During the final, climactic week of his earthly ministry, our Lord stood daily in the midst of the spiritual war zone of Jerusalem, ducking the 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 like a melody from another realm. Surrounded by disciples failing in courage, fickle crowds, conniving religious leaders, and clueless officials, Jesus nevertheless stood serene and kept releasing the vivifying breath of heaven into the stench of death.

Of course, I don’t deny that Jesus trembled, fearing the prospect of the cross. In private moments he admitted his soul was troubled unto death. He felt the utter loneliness of knowing that all his friends and supporters would abandon him. He dreaded 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.

And then it also struck me as I read this story that this sort of thing is also the calling of those who follow Jesus — to simply lift a melody of peace in the midst of the rubble and snipers’ bullets.

Yeah, 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. That was a great story about Vedran Smailovic. I had not heard of him before. I am happy that a sniper did not shoot him!

  2. It often seems that arenas like war zones and the crucifixion of our Lord are so massive that only the worst case scenario is worthy of any music.

    Yet, I have experienced powerful music in the midst of chaotic situations that most are never made aware of. If you have ever gone to the house of a badly dysfunctional family and acted with meekness, attempted polite conservation and smiled for those who were uncertain of your presence, it is not unlike playing a beautiful melody in the midst of a warzone.

    Sometimes people welcome it and sometimes they are indifferent, but they cannot deny that you were there and played a melody of God’s grace for them.

  3. Savatage wrote an album about this. It’s neat.

    Incidentally, that album is where THIS came from:

  4. Beautiful, Mike. Thank you. For anyone wanting to read more about music in a war zone, I recommend Elizabeth Goudge’s “Castle on a Hill.”

  5. A beautiful and poignant comparison.

    I have found my Holy Week much enriched by the different meditations and posts. So glad I found this site at last!

  6. Lukas db says

    Ha! The band Savatage (now the Trans-siberian orchestra) made a concept album based on this story. I never knew it was a real story before….It’s a good story, thought I, but the musician part is a bit improbable….

  7. I lived in Sarajevo for 9 years directly following the war; it remains my adopted home. I’ve heard Vedran play. My close friends – many Muslims by the way – suffered terribly and lost everything. I recall a particular encounter with a high ranking Bosnian Serb. It was a casual setting so I felt bold enough to pose a question linking the war and faith. Since we both were from Christian traditions, I asked him what he thought of Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbor. He replied that he did love his neighbors. He had gotten rid of all the ones he didn’t. Regardless, through, I am thankful in my life in Sarajevo for the opportunity to see Christ working in many other hearts. Sretan Uskrs!