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The hope of remembering


During the aftermath of the First World War, the construction of the Shrine of Remembrance was not without controversy, with parties disagreeing on the design that might best honour the nation’s war dead. War leaves fragility in its wake, and perhaps behind all disagreements lay the notion that no matter the construction, the Shrine could offer little promise of real solace.

The discussion around the Shrine’s design begs the question: what is the use of art in the face of war? Novelist Ralph Ellison observed how ‘war could, with art, be transformed into something deeper and more meaningful than its surface violence’. This is the hope behind spaces like the Shrine of Remembrance. With its classically inspired columns and its art deco reliefs, the Shrine seems to belie war’s devastation. But in its monumental grey façade, its statuary and its carvings, it is a sacred and sombre place. 

The final design for the Shrine was modelled on the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, a tomb built around 350 BCE in modern-day Turkey for a ruler named Mausolus, but this man and his rule had become time out of mind. The Mausoleum endured sixteen centuries before succumbing to damage wrought by foreign invaders and natural disasters. When the Mausoleum fell into decay, no efforts were made to rebuild. As with any grave marker, the structure had been intended to give form to death’s intangibility, and persisted as a sacred space as long as memory demanded it. Where memory persists, time’s oblivion is held at bay.

When people gather on Remembrance Day, commemorating the cease-fire at the end of the First World War, people take great pains to remember; a small acknowledgement of the horror of war, its loss, sacrifice and suffering. And in that time, it’s also worth pausing to reflect on those for whom wartime sacrifices and suffering are a daily reality. What do these people wish to remember?

This year, among the thousands of images to emerge from the war in Ukraine, was a short video of cellist Denys Karachevtsev playing Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in the ruins of Kharkiv amidst buildings scarred by fire and streets littered with debris.

Karachevtsev no doubt took inspiration by a musical predecessor in Sarajevo. In 1992, cellist Vedran Smailovic famously took his cello into the ruinous streets and performed for passers-by. This was the musician’s response to the deaths of twenty-two people who had been killed in a mortar strike while waiting in line at a bakery. Smailovic took his cello to the site and played there for twenty-two days.


'Like Smailovic, when Karachevtsev played his cello, he created a makeshift memorial. Death ceased to be commonplace, and it became, once again, something that demanded observance.'


At the time, the vision of a cellist in coat-tails was considered near-miraculous, raising questions about how in war, the ordinary act of cello playing had been rendered strange, and the strangeness of death rendered ordinary. Death had now become so everyday that it could even occur in a bread shop. Such are war’s ghastly inversions.

Like Smailovic, when Karachevtsev played his cello, he created a makeshift memorial. Death ceased to be commonplace, and it became, once again, something that demanded observance. For those who listened, the world was rendered recognisable again, transformed into something more meaningful than its surface violence. 

Many months have passed since the video of Karachevtsev playing his cello, and the conflict in Ukraine shows no sign of ceasing. For now, the reality of a peacetime world remains far out of reach. But Karachevtsev remembers what that world was like. And just like wartime sacrifice, that world deserves remembrance too.





David Rowland is a Melbourne teacher with a doctorate in English Renaissance drama.

Main image: Kharkiv cellist Denys Karachevtsev on March 20 played Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 outside the damaged remains of the Kharkiv regional police headquarters. (Oleksandr Osipov via Storyful)

Topic tags: David Rowland, RemembranceDay, War, Cello, Ukraine



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Existing comments

Perhaps commemoration or celebration are terms that are too heavy with significance to someone who has suffered in a war. Remembering and respecting matters. Music touches hearts and minds and great music is never forgotten, be it a symphony or a song. At this time, it is important to reflect on past sacrifices and future awakenings.

Pam | 10 November 2022  

I am a great lover of Dmitry Shostakovich, the great Russian composer, who wrote 12 great symphony's from the time of Stalin who at times banned his music , until his passing in the mid 1960's. He wrote one during teh siege of Leningrad ( St. Petersburg) . As a Conscript myself during the Vietnam years, who lost a mate in that conflict, heard of others in my Unit who have subsequently have committed suicide and whose family lost an Uncle on the Somme and another Uncle who returned home, scarred for life by his experiences, also on the Western Front .
Remembrance Day for me is a day of reflection and mourning for those we lost in the inane stupidity that is war. If it teaches me anything, it is that 102 years later we still have not learnt that no one wins a war!

Gavin a. O'Brien | 11 November 2022  

Thank you, David. Your article raises many emotions and important questions about how people recover or don't after a major conflict.

I agree with Pam that music can have a very soothing effect and touch the hearts of those who have been injured or lost loved ones in conflict.

But then, there is martial music which stirs up other emotions and sadly this is the sort of music that prevails at Anzac Day, Remembrance Day and other war memorial events - the agenda of which tends to be controlled by militarists.

Like Gavin O'Brien, I think such events should cause much greater reflection on wars and their inane stupidity. It is very true that no-one wins in a war except war profiteers in the corporations producing weapons and other military materials.

As we face the issue of global pollution causing the excessive warming of the planet and a huge death toll from pollution-related diseases, we should reflect that wars also contribute mightily to these problems.

For the sake of humanity, the world's people need to be choosing national leaders who will work for peace, human rights, social justice, the rule of law and effective strategies to repair our environment.

Our leaders could start by making Australia a neutral and non-aligned nation. Too many young Australians have died and suffered in unnecessary wars started by superpowers.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 19 November 2022  

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