The Cellist of Sarajevo

May 2, 2009

During the siege of Sarajevo, a concert musician was witness to a shelling just outside his building. 22 people standing in line at a bakery were killed.

He responded to this event by taking his cello out to the scene of the massacre and playing Albinoni’s Adagio for Strings for 22 days: one day for each victim of the shelling. He was aware that he was in direct line of more shelling and easy prey for snipers.

Steven Galloway wrote, ‘The Cellist of Sarajevo’,  based on this story.

Somehow this writer has captured the essence of why humans make art and how it affects us at our deepest core. 
Arrow,  young woman turned sniper in an effort to protect the city from the army that holds Sarajevo in siege, is appointed to protect the cellist during this strange ritual. 

‘The cellist confuses her. She doesn’t know what he hopes to achieve with his playing. He can’t believe he will stop the war. He can’t believe he will save lives’.

She wonders if he is insane but doesn’t think so. She has heard him play and the music moved her profoundly.

‘She tells herself she will not allow this man to die. He will finish what he is doing. It isn’t important whether she understands what he’s doing or why he’s doing it. She does understand it’s important, and that is enough.’

Later Kenan,  a middle aged man, on a dangerous and harrowing journey through the bombed out city to collect water for his family, hears faint music. He follows it for a few blocks and comes to the spot where the cellist is playing. Several people have gathered around and are listening quietly.  He had heard of this from someone and at the time had thought it a bit silly, a bit maudlin:

‘What could the man possibly hope to accomplish by playing music in the street. It wouldn’t bring anyone back from the dead, it wouldn’t  feed anyone, wouldn’t replace one brick. It was a foolish gesture, he thought, a pointless exercise in futility’.

None of this matters to Kenan anymore, he stares at the cellist, and feels himself relax and the music seeps into him’.

 While he listens, he sees in his inner eye the buildings slowly losing the scars of bullets, they are covered with smooth plaster and paint, windows reassemble, around him people stand up straight once again, and their faces gain colour.

Kenan watches as his city heals itself around him. The cellist continues to play…..

‘Arrow let the slow pulse of the vibrating strings flood into her. She felt the lament raise a lump in her throat, fought back tears.  [all the violence and hatred she had witnessed and taken part in] could not have happened. But she knew these notes. They told her that everything had happened exactly as she knew it had… No grief or rage or noble act could undo it. But it could all have been stopped. It was possible. The men on the hills didn’t have to be murderers. The men in the city didn’t have to lower themselves to fight their attackers. She didn’t have to be filled with hatred. The music demanded that she remember this, that she know to a certainty that the world still held the capacity for goodness. The notes were proof of that’.




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