Music in War

Vedran Smailović playing in the partially destroyed National Library in Sarajevo in 1992
Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev via Wikimedia Commons

How do you remember the tragic deaths in a war? Colin Lowther and Katy Blake tell the story of a musician who remembered death by playing his instrument.

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Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Colin Lowther.

Voice 2 

And I’m Katy Blake. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1 

During World War II, American and British forces bombed the city of Dresden, Germany. More than 22,000 people died in this terrible act of war. The bombs also destroyed many works of art, literature, and music. A short time after the war, a musician named Remo Giazotto was in Dresden. He was looking through the remains of old buildings. He found some pieces of paper with notes on them. They were directions for playing music.

Voice 2 

Giazotto believed it was music by the famous 18th century musician Albinoni. But Giazotto only found part of the music. So he looked at the rest of Albinoni’s musical pieces. He used these to complete the piece of music he found. Most experts think that Giazotto wrote the music himself. But people still call the music “Albinoni’s Adagio.”

Voice 1 

This song became a symbol. It shows that beauty can survive through conflict and war. Albinoni’s Adagio became even more famous during another war. In 1992, enemies surrounded the European city of Sarajevo. A musician named Vedran Smailović played Albinoni’s Adagio in the street. He played often, even though it was very dangerous. Today’s Spotlight is on the actions and influence of the cellist Vedran Smailović.

Voice 2 

In the 1990s, the former country of Yugoslavia experienced a terrible conflict. Different ethnic groups in the country fought each other for control. For more than three and a half years, the city of Sarajevo was under siege. Enemy soldiers completely surrounded the city. They blocked important supplies coming in. Citizens could not leave Sarajevo. It was the longest siege in the history of modern war.

Voice 1 

Thousands of people died during the Siege of Sarajevo. They could not get enough food or medical care. Many people were also killed by snipers. Sniper soldiers with guns hid in buildings. They shot people from far away, including children. Bombs also destroyed people’s homes and city hospitals. And, like Dresden, Sarajevo lost a lot of important cultural property.

Voice 2 

Before the siege, Sarajevo had many wonderful artists and musicians. One important musician was named Vedran Smailović. He played a large stringed instrument called the cello. When the siege began, Smailović was hopeful about peace. He did not believe that the siege would last a long time. But on May 27th 1992, something changed him.

Voice 1 

It was difficult to find food in Sarajevo at this time. One morning, many people stood in a long line. They were waiting for fresh bread at one of the last working bakeries. Suddenly, soldiers fired a bomb into the middle of the line. It killed 22 people and injured many others.

Voice 2 

After this tragic event, Vedran Smailović decided to use his cello to protest the war. Smailović held the large cello between his knees. With one hand he pressed four long strings. Smailović’s other hand pulled a long straight bow over the strings. He played beautiful music in the middle of the war. The song he played was Albinoni’s Adagio.

Voice 1 

Smailović played this song every day for 22 days. Each day represented one person who was killed at the bakery. Albinoni’s Adagio was a fitting piece of music to play. The history of the song was like Smailović’s act. It presented something beautiful in the middle of death and destruction. It was a song of hope. Every day Smailović chose a different place to play. He played in the middle of a street, or in a ruined home, or a bombed building. He even dressed up in a formal suit. This was the same suit that he used to wear to play for famous people.

Voice 2 

Smailović talked to a BBC reporter, Malcolm Brabant. He told Brabant that he wanted to make the world remember these people.

Voice 3 

“I play for the dead people. They are my friends, it is in my city, in my street, it is in my country. I play for my dead friends, and I play for the future, for a better future. It will be, I am sure.”

Voice 1 

Smailović did not stop playing his cello after his 22 day protest. He would often play at funerals. In August of 1992, bombs completely destroyed the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This library was the centre of knowledge and culture for the whole area. Smailović also played his cello in the remains of the destroyed library.

Voice 2 

In 1993, Smailović escaped from Sarajevo. But his courage gave many people hope. David Wilde is an English musician. He wrote a song for the cello called “Cellist of Sarajevo.” The song was about Smailović. In 1994, the world famous cellist Yo Yo Ma performed this song. He played it at the International Cello Festival in England. When Yo Yo Ma finished playing, he remained bowed over his instrument. The whole room was very quiet. Then, Yo Yo Ma stood up and raised his hand. To everyone’s surprise, Vedran Smailović walked forward! He had been watching the performance. Musician Paul Sullivan was there. He described it later in Hope magazine.

Voice 4 

“The emotion was unbelievable. Everyone jumped to their feet, cheering loudly, crying, shouting and putting their arms around each other. It carried us away in a huge wave of emotion. And in the centre of it stood these two men holding each other, both crying freely.”

Voice 1 

Vedran Smailović’s example continues to give people courage in times of war and conflict. In April of 2015, a car bomb killed several people in Baghdad, Iraq. It was 20 years after the Siege of Sarajevo. Karim Wasfi is an Iraqi musician. He played his cello at the place of the bombing. We end today’s program with Wasfi’s moving words. He told the BBC,

Voice 5 

“I want to bring beauty in the life of Iraq now. Music is one of the most important ways to do that. I cannot stop the bombs with my cello. But I will continue to make music to show life is still worth experiencing and living.”

Voice 2 

The writer of this program was Jen Hawkins. The producer was Bruce Gulland. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at This program is called, ‘Music in War’.

Voice 1 

Tell us what you think about today’s program. You can leave a comment on our website. Or email us at And find us on Facebook - just search for spotlightradio. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.


How do you remember the tragic events of a war?


Avatar Spotlight
said on November 29, 2016

In the wars , i think it necessary to have many people like Smailović’s .They will create a spirit of optimism and hope about the future promote better!

Avatar Spotlight
said on December 01, 2016

Each of us loves beautiful good things. We always make much effort to go to perfection. We may have difficulties. We may have challenges. When we experience difficulties we know how big difficulties are. When we experience challenges we know how big challenges are. We feel our weakness. We feel our smallness. Beautiful good things exist. Not good things need to be pushed away. We love beautiful good things. There is nothing that is capable of hindering us from going to perfection.

Avatar Spotlight
said on December 14, 2016

Music can’t stop the wars but it can make us stronger to against the wars

Severino Ramos da Silva's avatar
Severino Ramos da Silva
said on January 03, 2017

From: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) (Severino Ramos)
To: spotlight programme
Subject: answer to the questions above
Date: Tuesday 03, January 2017
São Paulo SP Brazil

Dear Katy Blake, Jen Hawkins, Colin Lowther, and Bruce Gulland:

At first, I want to thank you for bringing us readers and learners of English more one great article, thanks!
I remember them like a terrible action that must not happpen at no place.

Your regards,
Severino Ramos

Avatar Spotlight
said on January 25, 2018

In my opinion playing music is an excellent method how we can remember,  dignify dead heroes of war just as all people who had to suffer from terrible, harmful consequences of war, people whose homes were destroyed and whose family members were killed during war. Playing music can also express new expectation, new strong belief in better, happier future!