“On May 27th, 1992, a grenade was thrown into a bread queue at the bakery in the pedestrian precinct Vase Miskina in Sarajevo. Twenty-two people were killed. Every day after this tragedy, the cellist Vedran Smailovic
until recently with the Sarajevo Opera, went to the spot, in full evening dress, at four o’clock precisely, and risked his own life by playing in memory of the dead, regardless of mortar and machine gun fire and the risk of further grenade attacks. The report by John Burns the New York Times of this heroic musical declaration made an impact more immediate than any political statement up to that time. I first read about it on a train from Nurenberg to Hannover. As I sat in the train, deeply moved, I listened; and somewhere deep within me a cello began to play a circular melody like a lament without end.”
The opening of The Cellist of Sarajevo consists of only three long notes: a low C, the D flat above, and back down to the C. Yet, this simple melody conveys the agony with such clarity and conviction, that when I heard this piece for the first time on Yo-Yo Ma‘s Solo album,
I was instantly and completely enthralled. It was music stripped of any fanciness or flashiness – music as pure and honest as it gets.
The search for the score of The Cellist of Sarajevo also makes for an interesting story. I quickly realized that the music had not been published, so my choices were to find somebody who had a copy of the piece, or to contact the composer directly. The first option was rather hopeless, since the only two people that I knew had held this piece in their hands were Yo-Yo Ma and the musician who introduced him to the piece (a cellist in Switzerland by the name of Dmitri Markevich), neither of which were particularly easy to contact. The search for the composer turned into a wild chase that led into several dead ends; in the end, however, the librarian at the Hochschule for Musik und Theater Hannover – where David Wilde used to teach – kindly forwarded my inquiry directly to the composer’s new address in Scotland. Several days later, I found a message on my voice machine, spoken with a German/English accent: “Uh, Hello, this is Professor David Wilde speaking. I’m now living in Scotland. I’ve had a message from Hannover from ‘Hwa-chow Hsu,’ and I’ve been trying to send her an email, but there seems to be something the matter with her email address. Please get in touch. Goodbye!” An email correspondence ensued, in which I clarified my gender to him and he sent me the scores for not only “The Cellist of Sarajevo” but also a string quartet in similar spirit (the fourth movement carries the title “Threnodie for the unknown civilian victim of war and oppression”), and a recently completed satirical song entitled “Old Blair and Bush.”