Bullet-shattered mirror in Sarajevo c 1996
(thanks, Mikhail Evstafiev)
For centuries classical composers such as Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, and others have relied on their melodies and harmonies to tell stories without the common aspect of contemporary popular music: lyrics. But sometimes, even today, a composer will slip a hidden gem of a story into a song without a single word being uttered. John Oliva of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra managed to do just that when he penned his arranged blending of "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen" with "Carol of the Bells" to create a wildly emotional ride that has become "Christmas Eve, Sarajevo 12/24."
The story he tells is of a Bosnian cellist who returns to his homeland to find it in ruins after the war. Orchestra band-mate (for lack of a better term) Paul O’Neill explained to Christianity Today
, “I think what most broke this man’s heart was that the destruction was not done by some outside invader or natural disaster – it was done by his own people. At that time, Serbs were shelling Sarajevo every night. Rather than head for the bomb shelters like his family and neighbors, this man [Vedran Smailovic] went to the town square, climbed onto a pile of rubble that had once been the fountain, took out his cello, and played Mozart and Beethoven as the city was bombed.”
That story, even as I sit and type it, sends chills up my spine. It paints a chilling picture of a simple musician so hurt and devastated by his grief that he can think of nothing else to do except what comes most naturally to him: play. Between the pounding drums, tolling bells, and electric guitars that burst through at the transition from "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen" into "Carol of the Bells," the listener is there with him in Sarajevo watching in horror as the city is massacred in the bombing onslaught. The two sides ~ orchestra and rock band ~ represent the two sides in the war fighting and clashing for louder volume and dominance over the song. It isn’t really the happiest of Christmas images, but it’s an important one to remember nevertheless.
Sarajevo in winter
The Bosnian War for Independence (1992-1996) happened as a direct result of the political breakup of post-WWII, USSR-formed Yugoslavia, and included the longest siege of a capital city in the modern warfare: the Siege of Sarajevo. Over 10,000 people lost their lives, over 50,000 were injured, and over 2 million were displaced, making it the most disastrous conflict in Europe since the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945. It was a very complicated situation that (necessarily only for purposes of this article) must be oversimplified as a territorial conflict between Serbs, Bosnians, and Croatians.
Tensions began in Yugoslavia during its creation in the late 1940s due primarily to the fact that dozens of different ethnic and religious groups composed the country (also the dominant source of tensions across the Middle East to this day). In the early '90s, the entire region split with regard to the direction they were headed: remain with the Yugoslav federation or seek independence. Countless declarations, referendums, boycotts, and protests followed, and on March 3rd, 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina declared their independence. Less than two weeks later, Serb paramilitary forces began attacking, and the war was off and running.
In 2014, years after the conflict ended, Sarajevo is on the upswing. The politicians and corporate entities are working to rebuild the once great city. So much damage had already been done, however, that it will continue to be a toiling process, as many buildings remain heavily damaged. Scars are visible throughout the city. The siege took its toll on the children, too. At least 40 percent of Sarajevo’s under-18 population had been directly shot at by snipers, while a whopping 51 percent had seen someone killed; 39 percent saw one or more family members killed, while 19 percent witnessed a massacre.
The psychological trauma on that generation will be felt for decades to come. So when artists like James Blunt and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra draw worldwide attention to the atrocities of war, it’s important for the rest of us to sit down and listen up. "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" and the story of cellist Vedran Smailovic does just that.
It reminds us every holiday season that there is more to life than a daily routine. There is more to the news than guns and violence. It reminds us of the resiliency of the human spirit and of our capacity for compassion and forgiveness. I’d like to echo the sentiments of Tiny Tim from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol,
“God bless us, every one!”
~ Justin Novelli
Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 Songfacts
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