Scenes from Sarajevo

for soprano, viola, and cello

Text by Beverly Lafontaine

premiered September 15, 2003
Gwendolyn Lytle, soprano; Cynthia Fogg, viola; Tom Flaherty, cello
Bridges Hall, Claremont, California

score excerpt

Scenes from Sarajevo is based on six poems by Pasadena poet Beverly Lafontaine.

In a world with instantaneous dissemination of words and pictures, the cruelty and hardships that humanity inflicts upon itself are commonplace, although the details vary from one time and place to the next. The siege of Sarajevo has its own unforgettable imagery that no one exposed to the media in the early 1990s can easily forget: innocent people crossing a city bridge sporadically shot by snipers. A cellist playing alone in a town square, in defiance of the shells exploding around him. The news of many long-missing men discovered alive (or sometimes dead) only by their appearance on the television. Bodies floating down the river through the center of town. Ms. Lafontaine’s poems eloquently convey these scenes from various perspectives, often with an entirely unexpected intimacy and compassion. We see through the eyes of worried and grieving husbands, wives, children, and even a sniper.

I have long been attracted to the folk music of the Balkan region, and this setting reflects that, with drones, the mild dissonance of conflicting modes, and changing meters. The harmonic language of Ravel’s Chansons Madécasses was also in my mind, possibly because of its text. The ethnic tensions underlying the text of Ravel’s piece are perhaps more suppressed, but their ultimate violent outcome is never in doubt.

Scenes from Sarajevo is dedicated to Gwendolyn Lytle and Cynthia Fogg.



The day gathers into this hour,
at this place
where e-ven the dirt chants
in many voices.
Nothing is to be forgotten.
No one, no life, no memory, no thought.
Leaves of trees
bow these four notes over and over,
arrange and rearrange.


Once, on a tv show an actress played a job-seeker who'd majored in Serbo-Croation lit. A joke. Des Moines didn't get it. The show died. The actress went on to other roles. Eventually Serbs and Croats began slaughtering each other. Both sides claimed innocence. Blood became top soil. The world referred to the country in the past tense. Local heroes became war criminals. Poets were silent. A cellist played alone in a crumbling square.


The woman's arms are above her head,
palms upward. Sunlight flows between
her fingers, bathes her one bare arm,
bathes the cracked ribs of the unspeakably
old bridge. Waiting begins.

Minutes click into place with optic acuity,
shine on fingers curled into one last question,
leg, blossom of red under the thigh.

My eye stutters, seeks a warm place (the consequence)

Minutes blinking into place are numbered.
My eye widens. There and there the lovers.
One last meeting. She running to him knowing
she too will fall.


Your face, your face on the television.
I sit down hard, sit down hard on this borrowed chair.
Your eyes, your chin, the scar above your lip.
I scream your name.
Everyone comes running.
Our children beg, "What's wrong, Mama,
What's wrong?" I tell them,
"I saw your father on the television."
"Papa, Papa?"
"Are you sure?" say the others.
you yourself said
they marched the men into the woods.
"I know my husband." I say.
"The sun that shines on me
shines on him."
The children begin to cry. I cry.


Wife, wife, child, child.
Every breath a question.
Nights I am entombed.
Days I count the ribs
of my neighbors, the vertebrae
that appear under the skin
like silk rubbings.
My own skin thins and blossoms.
On my thigh Ani winks and smiles.
"Papi." she sings.
Arun adorns my chest.
Yesterday his eyes,
today his smile.
And you, my wife,
where will you appear?
I cannot bear for you to be alone.


On the water a waltz. A skim of white dresses, black shiny boots.

If the river had memory it would remember stars in the sky like notes of music on a page.

Not this. Not this:

Fear in jagged flight.
Hate booming like thunder.
The aimless drift of the dead

© Beverly Lafontaine