Ave Maria

by Michael Yaworsky

By Daniel Rozmyzych*

*Daniel Rozmyzych is the recipient of the Lann-Foxe Journalism Award in 1986 for his coverage of the Sudanese civil war, and of the 1976 Solokovski Award for his reporting on Vietnamese refugees.

        I write this on a train bound for London, leaving the Czech city of České Budějovice (“Ceske”) where I have just interviewed 28-year-old violinist Ružena Nemcova about a performance in which she participated in April 1996 in Sarajevo, Bosnia, just after the siege of that city ended. I met her while I was doing research for a book about musical performances and how they help civilians cope with the death and deprivations of wartime.
	As a journalist I have reported on war in countless locations, but getting into and out of Sarajevo was the trickiest. I was not able to get in during the siege, which lasted from April 1992 through February 1996; only after it was lifted was I able to gain entry. While there I met with Czech composer and orchestra manager Dr. Emil Beneš, who told me about the event that is the subject of this story, and who introduced me to Ružena, who related her role in the event. I was able to obtain additional details from Ružena during the follow-up visit that I have just concluded.
	Ružena grew up in Ceske during the 1970’s and 80’s, leading a more or less typical childhood. She went to school, enjoyed an active social life, and studied violin, which led to her becoming a professional musician with the New Chamber Music Guild of České Budějovice, or “Guild,” one of Ceske’s pre-eminent orchestral societies.
	Her musical career has always been fulfilling, she told me, but for a long time she suffered from depression, being in and out of treatment since she was a teenager. Although she felt well most of the time, the spells were debilitating not only in themselves but because of the constant anxiety that an episode could occur at any time. Another vexatious symptom was insomnia, which, in addition to the miseries of sleeplessness, made it difficult to focus during the day. Although music helped, she said, it couldn’t completely alleviate the underlying depression that constantly plagued her. But there was nothing to do for it but soldier on, so she did.
	Under Communist rule Guild musicians were able to travel freely within Czechoslovakia and sometimes to non-Communist countries like Italy and Austria if they were accompanied by “the necessary safeguards,” but were permitted no further abroad than that. Then after the fall of communism things opened up, and the Guild’s management was able to schedule the chamber orchestra for a six-month residence in Sarajevo to give performances and lead seminars (musicians’ salaries being meager, they often augment them by teaching).
	There are protocols in the music world as to what constitutes a proper chamber orchestra, but where the former Yugoslavia was involved they, like so many other conventions, were obliterated or disregarded; ensembles were put together according to who was available at any given time and labels were completely ignored. For the Sarajevo booking Ružena’s contingent consisted of two violins, two cellos, a harp, a viola, a double bass, an English horn, a flute, two oboes, and a recorder, and no attempt was made to give it a formal designation.
	Shortly after the trip was booked, the siege began and the visit had to be postponed. The musicians could only watch helplessly with the rest of the world as Bosnia imploded and Sarajevo turned into a killing ground. Finally, in April 1996 after relative peace was restored, the invitation was renewed, and the Guild accepted. Four members declined out of concern for their safety and one for a family situation, but the remaining seven prepared to go: Ružena and another violinist, a cellist, a viola, an English horn, an oboe, and a bass.
	The Guild musicians were fortunate in that their accommodations were surprisingly comfortable given the conditions in Sarajevo at the time. They were housed in a well-maintained dormitory of what had been an affluent high school, which had fully functioning utilities and an undamaged auditorium in which they could rehearse.
	The same could not be said of the venues where they played. The tour’s original goals had been to provide entertainment for the residents of the city and to facilitate networking opportunities between Guild members and their colleagues in Bosnia. Now it was seen almost exclusively as a way to distract the residents from the depredations they had endured during the siege. The schedule was therefore heavily skewed toward performances for people residing in hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and temporary shelters for those whose homes had been destroyed. Structurally and architecturally the settings for these recitals were not what one was accustomed to in the classical music world: makeshift spaces in school auditoriums, office buildings, stores, warehouses, private homes, gardens, public squares, and the like. There was often debris on the verge of the property, and they had to relocate a number of times when it looked like roofs or walls might collapse. But the locals seemed to appreciate their efforts; having relied on homemade music for so long, they were starved for anything and everything from the outside and they packed all the performances the Guild gave.
	Dr. Beneš was asked one day by the director of a hospital if they could add to their schedule a brief program at his hospital. Calling it a “hospital” was somewhat grandiloquent, he explained, as the building had been destroyed during the siege and its operation moved next door into the basement of what had been a frozen food processing plant. Volunteers had carried the medical supplies, lights, generators, examining tables, cleaning and sanitizing equipment, scrubs – pretty much everything that could be transported by people power – into the facility and set up operations there.
	During the siege the responsibilities of many of the hospitals, clinics, and trauma facilities in Sarajevo had been reassigned on a catch-as-catch-can basis to best serve the needs of the hurt and dying, and this hospital had ended up as a facility of last resort for patients for whom nothing could be done except maintenance of their status. Tenderness and palliative care would be shown them, and their pain managed as best as could be, but none were realistically expected to recover and go home. Essentially, it was a hospice. The director hoped the music would comfort the patients and any family members who might be administering to them. Dr. Beneš accepted the invitation.
 	The program was brief. They would open with two classical pieces, follow with a medley of Czech and Slovakian folk songs (avoiding anything associated with any of the Yugoslavian ethnicities so as not to offend any faction), and close with a vocal rendition of Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria by a local singer, accompanied by the Guild musicians.
	The vocalist was a 15 year old Croat girl named Eva Moslavać. She had been singing in public since childhood and had recently attracted acclaim for the maturity of her voice. Other than that she was a typical teenager, enjoying knitting and fabric work, board games, and German television shows (she spoke excellent German as well as passable Italian and Russian). Before the war her parents had planned to enroll her in an academy in Belgrade to pursue voice lessons, but the fighting had made that impossible and the family remained in Sarajevo during the siege.
	When the musicians arrived there were about fifty people gathered in the two large rooms that served as wards for the hospital: two dozen patients, eleven staff, eight or nine family members and visitors, and several delivery people who had stayed behind to hear the music. The wards were spacious areas connected by an opening wide enough to accommodate several forklifts side by side. Other, smaller rooms served as examining and treatment rooms, offices, and storage areas.
	The first piece went well. Oddly enough, the acoustics were good and all the listeners were able to enjoy the music. The second piece and the folk medley also went off smoothly and were thoroughly enjoyed.
	Before the performance of the last piece, Schubert’s Ave Maria, there was a lull during which the musicians and the soloist made sure everything was in order and all were clear about the logistics. They had never played together before and needed to be sure everyone would be in sync. As for the Ave Maria, the orchestra had performed it, but only as an instrumental, with the cellist playing the lead or solo line, and now they had to adapt it to accommodate a vocal solo.
	Eva was well prepared and did not appear nervous. Open and unassuming, she moved with an air of confidence that belied her youth. As the orchestra were finishing up their preparations she ventured into the wards for a few minutes, stopping at the beds of some of the patients. The ones who were able, smiled up at her or took her hand. She smiled back.
	When everyone was ready, the instrumental introduction began, joined by Eva on her cue. She started off strong and only grew stronger. Her solo, the musicians and audience all told me afterward, conveyed the disciplined restraint required of the piece while at the same time exhibiting forceful passion and almost overwhelming emotional fervor.
	When she finished they said there was not a dry eye in the house, as the saying goes. But apparently that was not unusual; according to Dr. Beneš and the Guild musicians, it was seldom that a well-rendered version of that piece didn’t elicit that kind of response. Nevertheless, they said, the reverential silence that followed this rendition was different. It lasted almost a full minute. No one applauded, everyone just quietly returned to what they had been doing, many dabbing at their eyes. Director Beneš strode up to Eva, shook her hand, and exchanged some words with her. Then each of the musicians did the same. Eva accepted all their compliments with becoming modesty. (One of the visitors told me she’d heard Eva’s mother say that whenever Eva sang well, she attributed it solely to the piece and its composer and was just glad to have been the medium through which the music emerged.)     
	When I talked to Ružena afterward she told me that Eva’s performance was the most memorable she’d ever been part of. She said that after the first few measures she could tell it was going to be something special. She became lost in it, transported by the soaring melody and the purity of Eva’s expression. She said it was as if her violin played itself and she was only there to guide it through the necessary physical and spatial motions.
	When I met later with Dr. Beneš, Ružena, and some of the others, the hospital’s chief medical officer joined us. Among other things he told us that six of the hospital’s patients had died overnight following the performance. Six. Fully one quarter of the patient population. Nothing like that had ever happened before, he said.
	Ružena recoiled in alarm and, as she described it to me, a squeamish sort of guilt. She asked – dreading the answer – if she had participated in something so aggressive or disturbing as to have upset the patients to the point of bringing on the crisis of their deaths. But the doctor put his hand on her arm and told her consolingly, almost cheerily, that his staff had been up all night and in the morning reported to him that the deceased patients had all experienced peaceful passings. They had seen countless deaths, he said, many difficult and painful, too few “easy” or “willing,” but every one of the passings that night had been the latter way. They could only conclude that the music had helped the patients reach a comfortable acceptance of their condition; “feel good in their soul” was the phrase one had used. “That music was the last thing they heard,” another said. “It may not have been the last sound to reach their ears, but it was the last thing they heard.”
	The families expressed the same sentiment. Ružena was finally comforted after she’d heard one family member after another say so, all adding heartfelt gratitude that their loved ones had been able to leave this realm so peacefully. It was noted by several that the song lyrics asked for blessing “nunc et in hora mortis nostrae” – now and at the hour of our death.

                                                         *                    *                    *

	I met with Ružena sixteen months later when I revisited Ceske to finalize some details for my book. Naturally I asked how she was doing. She told me that since that night she has not experienced a single episode of anxiety or depression. In fact, she said, she has completely discontinued her treatment, including her medication. She also said she no longer has problems sleeping. This all dates, she says, from the night Eva Moslavać sang the Ave Maria in Sarajevo.

Michael Yaworsky is a former legal editor, now retired. He lives in Rochester’s 19th Ward with his family.