The Independent, 5-12-99

Belgrade bomb culture
'Music has become something noble and
important for everyone here.' Between
nightly bombings citizens of Serbia's
capital are flocking to the daily
improvised concerts. By Michael Church
Not all the arts are extinguished by
war. Consider the women's orchestra in
Auschwitz, and the extraordinary
creative flowering among the Jews
incarcerated in Terezin. Consider the
Bosnian cellist Vedran Smailovic,
playing daily in besieged Sarajevo's
ruined concert hall. Olivier Messiaen
was a POW in Germany when he wrote his
Quartet for the End of Time; Britten
was commissioned to write a choral
piece by British POWs in Germany. In
some mysterious way, war causes music
to thrive.
So how is music faring under Nato
bombs? A few evenings on the phone to
musicians in Belgrade - surprised and
grateful that a Brit should be
interested enough to ask - yields
answers which will not be music to the
ears of Clinton and Blair.
When London was being blitzed by the
Nazis, the pianist Myra Hess persuaded
dozens of friends to join her in a
celebrated series of lunchtime concerts
at the National Gallery. War-weary
office workers flocked to those
morale-boosting occasions, and the
nation later made her a dame.
"Exactly the same thing is now
happening in Belgrade," says pianist
Aleksandar Madzar. "The concerts which
would normally take place in the
evening are, of course, off the menu -
that's when the bombs start to fall -
but free lunchtime concerts are
cropping up all over town, and they're
drawing packed houses."
"All my students are volunteering to
play - they're glad to do something
useful," says Vlastimir Trajkovic, who
teaches at the Belgrade Academy. "But
there are also protest concerts on the
bridges at night. There's no propaganda
to persuade people to come, but they
come in their thousands because they
are so angry, and so despairing. Music
has become something noble and
important for everyone here."
The first day his department tried to
function normally since hostilities
began, an air-raid warning brought
things quickly to a halt. "Some
students I don't see at all," he says.
"One girl who lives by the Pancevo
refinery - and was poisoned by gas when
it was hit - is too scared to cross the
bridge to get here. One of my
violinists, a refugee from Tudjman's
Croatia, lives so close to a military
airport that he has to sit in a shelter
practically 24 hours a day. But it's
essential that they should know we are
there for them, whether they come or
Meanwhile, his own work has come to a
standstill. "I've been trying to
compose, but I'm just walking about.
For some reason I ended up at the zoo
"It's impossible to make plans or
concentrate," says Professor Srdjan
Hofman. "One of my students is working
furiously, but the rest of us are doing
nothing, just waiting for things to get
worse, as we know they will." But, as
he points out, music in Yugoslavia has
long been embattled. From the moment
when sanctions were imposed in 1992, he
and his colleagues were cut off from
their counterparts abroad. "They
couldn't come to play, and we couldn't
pay them. When inflation was at its
height, my salary as dean of the
academy was the equivalent of 3 per
month. There were no records in the
shops, and for over a year not a single
classical record was produced here.
That was when our concerts started to
proliferate, and when I and my friends
started a magazine devoted to new
music, which we published in two
languages, English and Serbian.
"Only after the Dayton Agreement did
things get better, and our annual May
festival got going: this month's was to
have been our biggest yet. Last year, I
was at a new-music festival in
Manchester. I couldn't have dreamed,
then, that I would now be sitting in
the middle of this."
Neda Bebler produces radio programmes -
or rather did, until Nato planes
knocked out her transmitter. "Our main
programme was called Stereorama, and it
was the only way ordinary people could
hear classical music the way you hear
it on Radio 3. We invited requests in
our newsletter, and tailored our output
to help students with no access to
She says that the lunchtime concerts in
museums and galleries are absolutely
vital for people's morale. "To get them
out of their homes, and to meet each
other. I have had to move from my
apartment, because it's near one of the
bridges we are daily expecting to go.
Isn't that the Nato plan - to bomb us
back into the Middle Ages, as they've
done to Novi Sad?"
At midnight last Saturday, Professor
Ninoslav Zivkovic was playing Mozart in
his flat. "It felt strange, in this
dark, silent city where Nato had put
out all the lights. Then suddenly a
huge bomb exploded literally a hundred
yards away. I thought I was in hell; my
cat almost died of fright." For him,
the students' daily concerts have a
clear message. "We are playing, while
you are bombing us. We are continuing
with our lives, despite everything you
are doing."
Sometimes, he says, he finds the energy
to practise. "But sometimes I feel it's
nonsense, that for us in Yugoslavia it
no longer has any point. My students
are upset at what is happening, but
they don't realise how completely their
country has already been destroyed.
They don't yet understand that there is
no professional future for them here."
Faced with a possible universal
call-up, he is planning to emigrate via
Budapest, though with a sinking heart
at the position he will leave behind.
Like the others quoted here, he avoids
talking politics, but is horrified by
what he sees as evil on both sides.
Meanwhile, the music plays on.
Rossini's La Cenerentola is in
repertory at the opera house; Monday's
concert at the Kolarac hall included a
performance of a shockingly apposite
work: Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony,
inspired by the bombing of Dresden by
Allied forces during the Second World
War, as well as by his own experience
of the Leningrad siege in 1941. Next
Friday, four new works composed by
young Serbian women will be premiered
by the Belgrade Philharmonic - Nato
permitting, of course. Last week,
leading lights of the Council of Europe
gathered at the Barbican for a concert
to celebrate their first 50 years. How
ironic. Let them consider these words
from colleagues who were unable to
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