Old Russian lady playing Hungarian Rhapsody no 2 in the street
September 8, 2019 9:12 AM   Subscribe

It's amazing the amount of history that's in this video. While she had the means and station to be educated in music, she likely learned this in an era when the piano was the in-home entertainment. She probably remembers times and places in her life, either her home, or rustic family getaway, when electricity wasn't ubiquitous. She remembers learning how to perform from friends or uncles who were paid to play in bars for entertainment. She remembers the phonograph, and later the record player taking over these jobs. She's played piano for over half a century, likely performed much, taught some, and lived her quiet and happy existence. So imagine her joy, of being able to share this little moment, this nostalgic reach to the 1950's in Russia when family would gather, and play all of their old favorites, from Tchaikovsky symphonies, to Liszt, to folk songs at the piano, all witnessed by children on their iPhones, witnessing a simple piece of history that they'll never fully comprehend.
posted by growabrain (32 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
To think how much this applies to me, as a kid in the 1970s, watching it performed by Bugs Bunny on TV after school.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:39 AM on September 8 [7 favorites]


I'm gonna be the party pooper and say that while someone that old sure has seen some wild changes in her life, the comment is largely romanticizing and complete speculation about a total stranger. They have no idea what this lady's life has been, when she learned to play, who she played for, etc.
posted by schroedinger at 11:14 AM on September 8 [26 favorites]


indeed... maybe she just like bugs bunny?
posted by kaibutsu at 11:17 AM on September 8 [1 favorite]


She remembers the phonograph, and later the record player taking over these jobs

This is some really bizarre speculation, both from a factual chronology point of view (phonographs? As opposed to record players??) and an assumptions-about-a-complete-stranger point of view. Like, cool story bro, I guess, but we’re really just dealing a human being used as a writing prompt to make amateur fiction.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 11:33 AM on September 8 [9 favorites]


When she does "Bohemian Rhapsody" then I'll be really impressed...
posted by PhineasGage at 12:55 PM on September 8


"children on their iPhones, witnessing a simple piece of history that they'll never fully comprehend"

not like you, reddit user "jaylward" who, like the mona lisa, are older than the rocks on which you sit; like the vampire, you have been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave, and have been a diver in deep seas, and keep their fallen day about you

but don't lose heart, Old One; some of those foolish children with their 'phones may be just as capable of reading Wikipedia-style potted histories of the 20th century and making up Comprehensive stories about strangers as you
posted by queenofbithynia at 1:29 PM on September 8 [13 favorites]


She looks like she's having fun on that beat-up piano, and I hope she made some good money for her time. I'm impressed she knows that amusing piece so thoroughly by heart.

But I worked in a school where many of the young students could have played this happily on the piano in a public place, because along with robotics many were studying piano - or violin, or cello, or electric guitar, for that matter.

As a person of a certain age, I have finally noticed that something about the category "old lady" brings out a certain sentimental astonishment as if we had at some point turned in our humanity cards and are now remarkable for the way in which we mimic real human behavior. Or, as two darling slightly stoned teenager girls said to me last year when I was dancing in the crowd at Made In America, "I want to be you when I grow up," as they tried to tow me further toward the stage. It was sweet, but girls, I was just dancing.
posted by Peach at 1:46 PM on September 8 [22 favorites]


She could be 60. At most she is 80-something and thus born just before WW2. Regardless of how old she is or isn't, she grew up in the postwar Sovjet Union and she has most likely never seen a phonograph, or had a happy peaceful life. It's true that all forms of culture were prized during Sovjet times, and probably more people played instruments and read good literature than in Western countries, but even in those rural areas where people still lived without electricity (where she probably didn't live), there was access to cinemas, to contemporary music and to international youth culture. Russia during Sovjet times was poor and oppressed, but it wasn't like on an other planet.
Old people today are boomers, the great generation has almost died out.
posted by mumimor at 1:47 PM on September 8 [6 favorites]


Well the comment pulled at MY heartstrings anyway though I also appreciate the cooler heads prevailing here.
posted by bleep at 1:48 PM on September 8 [2 favorites]


On the Liszt scale of difficulty, where easy is mildly tough (Liebstraume) and difficult is inhuman (Berlioz/Lizst Symphony Fantastique), the No.2 is about halfway up the scale and she plays it well, especially on a vague upright.
posted by bz at 2:02 PM on September 8 [5 favorites]


They have no idea what this lady's life has been, when she learned to play, who she played for, etc.

Well yeah, but I think the subtext here could be: a zillion people may have been murdered and starved and suffered all kinds of misery, but I think it's an incontrovertible fact that the Soviet Union made artistic education and achievements a much higher priority than in the U.S.
posted by rhizome at 2:09 PM on September 8 [4 favorites]


As a person of a certain age, I have finally noticed that something about the category "old lady" brings out a certain sentimental astonishment as if we had at some point turned in our humanity cards and are now remarkable for the way in which we mimic real human behavior.

yes. all the fetishization that very young women get, minus the sexualization, but without any respect added back in to replace it. you can see it coming decades and decades before you enter the second great Age of Insult yourself.

a lot of people I mean a LOT of people can't distinguish at all between Old people as they are in their remembered children's books and old people they meet now, who are all somewhere between 30 and 300 years younger that. so I expect in 40 years someone will make up a similar dingdong fable about me if they dare to peep in on my piano practice. sure fine, say that back in the olden days Upstate the forest gnomes spied on me hauling my first Victrola home from the Victrola mines & built me an instrument of my own out of willow boughs & a seat-cover of oakmoss & the hares gave of their strongest whiskers to make the piano wires, I don't care
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:11 PM on September 8 [22 favorites]


It is certainly a fact that many many families had pianos in their parlors (renamed living rooms once the funeral industry took over the displaying-dead-people thing). And it is true that now it's hard to give away a piano on Craigslist. A damn shame is what it is. Yeah, I'm an old piano player myself, although not as old as that Russian woman.
posted by kozad at 2:33 PM on September 8 [1 favorite]


It is very strange that the cultural archetype of An Old Person is still a Boomer's grandparent: someone born before 1920 who remembers the Great Depression and World War II.

In reality most boomers are now Old, and a typical Old Person remembers Woodstock and probably was lucky enough to gorge on sex and drugs and rock and roll during the summer of love.
posted by monotreme at 2:59 PM on September 8 [3 favorites]


What's sad is when someone shows you a family heirloom piano that they think is like priceless, and it is so badly in need of reconditioning that it is basically worthless except as awkward furniture.
posted by thelonius at 3:02 PM on September 8 [2 favorites]


But I worked in a school where many of the young students could have played this happily on the piano in a public place, because along with robotics many were studying piano

HR 2 is a difficult performance level piece, I sat in a masterclass held at an elite uni (that admits many such students) where the student was gently but honestly advised by the resident artist that they weren't ready for it.

Speaking as someone who sometimes reads piano PhD theses to learn about piano technique for specific pieces, if many students can play this piece all that says is they were lucky and privileged to get $100 lessons per week for years (meaning $3000 per year over 10+ years) plus regular access to a grand piano for the key action mechanism (which is $50,000 ballpark, $20,000 minimum) to get to that point.
posted by polymodus at 3:09 PM on September 8 [3 favorites]


Speaking of the boomers and classical music, I was at Tanglewood 50 miles away that weekend at a classical concert. Most Boomers were not at Woodstock that weekend and of those non-attendees most were not at all interested in “gorging on sex and drugs and rock and roll” I did have a friend who attended but it was a morass of mud and he had a horrible time.

It’s so weird to me how all that generation seems to have merged in people’s minds into what even at the time was a media-hyped generalization all dolled up with rainbow stripes.
posted by Peach at 3:18 PM on September 8 [4 favorites]


In reality most boomers are now Old, and a typical Old Person remembers Woodstock and probably was lucky enough to gorge on sex and drugs and rock and roll during the summer of love.

I feel this comment is doing something similar to what others in this thread are complaining about. The vast, vast majority of Boomers had little to no opportunity or inclination to do any such thing.
posted by erst at 3:19 PM on September 8 [3 favorites]


Speaking as someone who sometimes reads piano PhD theses to learn about piano technique for specific pieces, if many students can play this piece all that says is they were lucky and privileged to get $100 lessons per week for years (meaning $3000 per year over 10+ years) plus regular access to a grand piano for the key action mechanism (which is $50,000 ballpark, $20,000 minimum) to get to that point.

But really, that wasn't how things worked in the Sovjet Union. At all.
posted by mumimor at 3:36 PM on September 8 [1 favorite]


In reality most boomers are now Old, and a typical Old Person remembers Woodstock and probably was lucky enough to gorge on sex and drugs and rock and roll during the summer of love.

Well, they're 75ish. Thing is, there's a BIG difference between 70 and 80 right now: people who were teenagers during Eisenhower, and those who were teenagers in the early-mid 60s. There was a huge cultural shift then (inventing the entire concept of "teenager," says one documentary) and this plays out in interesting ways. In 10 years you had kids who were growing up in the shadow of the Depression, to kids who grew up in the dawn of the hippies. Race, economics, careers...all these attitudes are often unshared between these populations.

I'm sure Russia/SU had something similar. Those born under Lenin vs. Stalin, whatever famines and aforementioned misery operated on one but not the other. If I had to guess I'd say this woman was early-mid 80s, so the second half of the 30s. Wikipedia tells me there was a hard line in 1939 between the Early Policies and WWII/Cold War, where the SU lost 1/3 of its male population. So maybe more of a Reverse Boomers situation.

Anyway, I'm not sure what all this means except that this lady has probably seen some shit and also went to a school with art and music programs.
posted by rhizome at 3:38 PM on September 8 [5 favorites]


But I worked in a school where many of the young students could have played this happily on the piano in a public place, because along with robotics many were studying piano - or violin, or cello, or electric guitar, for that matter.

I mean, I don't want to fetishize Old People Doing Common Things, but (to me) knowing how the play the piano well enough to play a recognizable song is not a common skill. Anytime anyone plays a public piano well, I'm always delighted, because I imagine most people who walk by them have no piano-playing ability at all.
posted by 23skidoo at 4:01 PM on September 8 [3 favorites]


I'd guess the woman is maybe in her early seventies at the oldest. I'm not great at guessing how old a person is, but people age quickly in eastern Europe. If she's seventy, she would have been about four when Stalin died. Anyone you meet might have had a life full of hardship and suffering, but there isn't much reason to assume her life was shaped by memories of the Gulag and mass starvation. Lots of old people in Russia remember their Soviet youths and childhoods fondly. That said, it's entirely possible that she experienced life without electricity or indoor plumbing in her youth, and the material conditions she is used to are likely bad by Western standards.

As far as mythology goes, I'm just as curious about the way the audience is described in the reddit passage. Some of the "children" look like they are pensioners. One of the seated younger women is reading a book. Another is watching the piano player with rapt attention. But that said, there are plenty of memes going around in Russia about young people's total ignorance of the older generations' experiences. It's very hard to meet the dual challenge of empathizing with the people of the past while recognizing their difference from us.
posted by a certain Sysoi Pafnut'evich at 4:03 PM on September 8 [4 favorites]


This post has made me realize a huge difference between the US and Europe, in this case including Russia and other former Sovjet countries. Over here, we have huge organisations securing young peoples' access to classical music education. Actually, my feeling is that this goes for most Asian countries as well, just because when there are music competitions, Asian countries are very competitive. Just in my country, every single municipality has a free music school, and every year there is a discussion about wether we are doing enough, because Eastern Europeans and Asians are out-competing our young talents.
(For those who don't know about classical music: careers are very much defined by competitions, either for publicity or jobs or for positions within acknowledged orchestra. Most bigger cities in Europe have orchestras, so there is a demand, but the competition is hard. If you don't succeed there, you can teach, or play in churches. Nobody sits along the old phonograph).
To me, it didn't seem like the lady could have formerly been a concert pianist. The level in Russia has always been quite high. She might have been a teacher, or an accompanist at a music- or dance school. But nothing indicates that she came form some pre-sovjet past, outside of history. Of course not. The Russian revolution was in 1918 -- more than a hundred years ago.
posted by mumimor at 4:26 PM on September 8 [6 favorites]



This post has made me realize a huge difference between the US and Europe, in this case including Russia and other former Sovjet countries. Over here, we have huge organisations securing young peoples' access to classical music education

This gap exists but I'm not sure what it has to do with this post. in any lower to upper middle class U.S. milieu it is completely normal and usually expected for most children to learn how to play an instrument, many of them through public elementary-school-sponsored programs, others starting earlier than that at their parents' behest, and to practice with some level of diligence at least into high school, though not usually out of it. it is perfectly true that almost all of us have to purchase our serious musical instruction and any instruments privately, yes, and this is a bad system that disadvantages many, yes. but since this is what we have to do to get it, people who are able to pay for it, do.

so no, it is not unusual for adult Americans to play the piano competently. as a people, we do not require to be shocked in order to be appreciative.

To me, it didn't seem like the lady could have formerly been a concert pianist. The level in Russia has always been quite high.

yeah, American standards are not so different from Russian standards that this woman could be a concert pianist in America, either.

Americans go berzerk with sentimentality for a little bit of dash and technical competence and style in street performers half the time, and the other half of the time we ignore them (see: the dumb Josh Bell metro experiment of a few years ago, which proved exactly nothing. except, if you like, that Americans have very high standards in classical music and take a concert-level performance as no more than we expected.)

there's a guy I see at the bottom of a metro escalator sometimes, he plays the flute, he plays the Bach A minor partita about as well as this woman plays the Liszt. meaning, he plays like he had several years of lessons sometime in his early life and paid attention. meaning, if you go by him and like that piece, you listen for a few minutes and smile and leave him a tip if you can and go on your way. many are pleased; no one is stunned. But he's not a little old lady, so.
posted by queenofbithynia at 5:38 PM on September 8 [5 favorites]


I wanted to enjoy this but had to stop watching, that piano makes a persitant squeak I find distracting and ultimately intolerable.

But she reminds me of a performer I caught on the Venice boardwalk in LA in the early 80's, who somehow managed to maneuver a big upright piano out onto Ocean Front Walk from somewhere, and he was banging away at it as young people skated past, on a similarly cloudy day.

And you're absolutely right, mumimor, there's now a huge gap between European and Asian musical education and that received in the USA, where Music classes have all been removed from the curiculum, along with the Art, in order to ensure enough funding for Sports.
posted by Rash at 6:05 PM on September 8 [2 favorites]


in order to ensure enough funding for Sports

And what little is left must be spent on STEM, I believe.
posted by maxwelton at 7:07 PM on September 8 [1 favorite]


I think she sounds outstanding! Lots of joy in her playing. A pleasure to hear -- and it seems like also a pleasure to play.

I go to a lot of world-class professional music performances, as many as I can afford. Like, had an opera subscription last season, etc. (Also learned to play viola and cello myself in American public school). No, she doesn't sound like a concert pianist. No, that's not a bad thing!

The video description is ahistorical/historically inaccurate but I think the distinction between a "piano player" and a "pianist" is legitimate, and I hear the description writer that piano players are awesome and deserve credit. Mr. Piano Man link for anybody who wants more historical context for the social role of piano playing during this woman's probably heyday. ;)
posted by rue72 at 7:35 PM on September 8


I wanted to enjoy this but had to stop watching, that piano makes a persitant squeak I find distracting and ultimately intolerable.

If it's the same thing I heard, it's a resonant peak within the camera/phone's microphone. A cheap mic thing.
posted by rhizome at 7:58 PM on September 8 [1 favorite]


But really, that wasn't how things worked in the Sovjet Union. At all.

Well, were they studying robotics? Was I talking about the SU? It's misleading and insulting to not read a comment in context and shoot off a 2-liner like that.
posted by polymodus at 8:21 PM on September 8


Sorry polymodus, I certainly didn't mean to insult you. There are so many parallel discussions in this thread.
posted by mumimor at 10:20 PM on September 8


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1JKd1C7izQ
tom and jerry !!!!!!!!
posted by markbrendanawitzmissesus at 12:17 AM on September 9


mumimor, my dad was born in 1918 and it's a thing where now when I'm trying to find out more about his early life I have to keep catching myself to remember his contemporaries all died long before he did.

That regular squeak was the pedal, and yes it was jarring. I was interested in the crowd, mainly the many selfie-taking young men who were chafing because someone else was occupying the piano. So many of them were posing so strenuously for the video camera. I guess it's a public piano that attracts street virtuosi. Looks like the old lady was escorted there very carefully, also for the camera. Note how someone rushes to sit at the piano stool as soon as she's gone.
posted by glasseyes at 10:44 AM on September 9


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