How the city of my birth shaped my musical journey
Sarajevo is a city that is a melting pot of cultures, religions, architecture and humour. It is one of the very few places in world where a Mosque, a Roman Catholic Cathedral, a Serbian Orthodox Cathedral and a Synagogue can be found within 100 metres of each other. Its turbulent and varied history has made it a place that has absorbed many influences and made them its own.
Sarajevo’s very centre, Baščaršija, is made up of single-story shops and restaurants that look back to the 500 years of Ottoman rule, leading to the Viennese-like buildings built as practice for Vienna during the country’s time as an annex in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The outskirts, in turn, have Socialist-style architecture. All can be reached by tram – it was Europe’s first tram network, tested in Sarajevo before being built in Vienna. The city’s proudest moment in recent history was probably in the mid '80s, when it was chosen as the host city for the Winter Olympics, where the British ice-skating duo Torvill and Dean famously won the Gold medal skating to Ravel’s Bolero.
I was born and had my early childhood in Sarajevo. Together with my family, I came to the UK when the war broke out in ’92. Most references to the city now, and over last few years, focus on the recent tragedies. But for me it is also important to remember and celebrate the incredibly rich and diverse culture of the city and region.
Folk music, especially Sevdalinka, is ever-present in Bosnia. Sevdah means a love song, or a longing for a person, a time or a place, that is both joyous and painful. As a child living in Sarajevo, I was not all that taken by the melancholic mood of this music, and I preferred to immerse myself in classical and pop music. Now, as I no longer live there and as I am older, I find these songs much more moving and powerful – they get right under your skin.
When I asked Cheryl Frances-Hoad to write a piano concerto for me, which was commissioned by Southbank Sinfonia, my only request to her was that she somehow use the Sevdalinka ‘Kad ja podjoh na Bentbašu’, the unofficial anthem of Sarajevo, in her work. It is a very simple song, with words that appear rather silly at first sight: it tells the story of a man who goes to collect water with his little lamb, passing by a house on the way, where a beautiful girl lived. She asks him to visit her again that night, but he doesn’t, and only returns the following day to discover that she had already married another! Things moved quickly! As well as being about unrequited love, the deeper message of the song is that of ‘seize the day’, carpe diem.
Frances-Hoad tells me that she sought many different ways to use the folk song in her concerto, until finally deciding that the most effective was to simply have it in its unaltered form, repeated seven times in the orchestra, like a passacaglia, in her Finale. There is a build up to a great climax, where the piano, which has been jarring against this theme, finally plays in unison with the orchestra. I find this moment in the piece especially moving, every time I hear it.
Frances-Hoad was also inspired by the historical novel, The Bridge over the Drina by the Novel Prize-winning author Ivo Andrić. I had given Frances-Hoad the novel merely as background history to the region, but she was very taken by the writing and the underlying message of it (which is not so distant from that of the folk song), so much so that it became key to shaping her whole concerto. Quotations from the novel precede each movement. As an added track to the album Origins, Frances-Hoad has also arranged this folk song for solo piano, as a sort of two-part invention on a Sevdalinka melody.
The album weaves together many different threads and cultural connections in Europe across centuries. To those who are interested in looking and listening a little beyond the surface, I hope it also offers a small insight into the rich culture and history of where I was born.
Ivana Gavrić latest album, 'Origins', is released today by Rubicon Classics