Arts: 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.
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The Independent Culture
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 not."

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 yesterday."

"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 pounds 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 records."

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 attend.