The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Russia invaded, a young boy played piano in Ukraine. Philip Glass says he never envisioned this soundtrack.

Paul Leonard-Morgan, the co-composer of the piece, said he ‘was moved beyond words that someone could find escapism in our music at this horrific time in their life’

Washington Post reporter Whitney Leaming captures this moment of a Ukrainian boy playing the piano amid the invasion. (Whitney Leaming/TWP)
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Just as Russia began its invasion, reports were swirling that troops were closing in on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Sirens were blaring. People were attempting to flee.

Amid the uncertainty and chaos last Thursday, a young boy in the city sat down at a glossy white piano in a hotel lobby and began to play.

Washington Post video journalist Whitney Leaming, who is in Ukraine, heard the sound from several floors above. She ventured out into the hallway to hear more. She pulled out her video camera, filming as he played against a backdrop of swirly beige carpet below. The melodies reminded her of her mother’s own piano playing when she was a baby and could not sleep.

A young boy plays piano in the lobby of a Kharkiv hotel as Russian troops advance on the city. (Video: Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

Leaming’s video was shared to The Post’s Instagram account, where thousands of people left comments, many calling the footage “heartbreaking.” To date, the footage has been viewed on Instagram almost 9 million times.

Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan, the composers of the music, could never have imagined that the piece would become the soundtrack to a war.

“I never thought of this music as a political piece, but it has become one,” Glass, 85, one of the most renowned of living composers, said in a statement Tuesday.

The piece, titled “Walk to School,” was written in 2020 and is featured on the soundtrack of the science fiction drama television series “Tales from the Loop” on Amazon Prime.

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Glass said living in New York’s East Village, an area of which he said is known as “Little Ukraine” due to the large number of Ukrainians there, has broadened his knowledge of Ukraine’s culture and his love for its people.

“I have come to know and become friends with many of my Ukrainian neighbors,” he said. “I sympathize with them, their families, and all the innocent citizens and people of Ukraine. They are living through difficulties we all hope to never face.”

Scottish-born Leonard-Morgan, 48, who now lives in Los Angeles, said the young boy’s piano playing “in the face of adversity” moved him to tears.

“I saw the clip and was moved beyond words that someone could find escapism in our music at this horrific time in their life,” he told The Washington Post on Monday.

While he did not know if the boy was “finding solace or hope” in the song, he considered it powerful that music can “transcend all boundaries” and evoke emotion.

“Music can affect each of us personally, but it can also reach a collective conscience,” Leonard-Morgan said.

Days earlier, Leonard-Morgan went on Twitter and shared the video of the boy’s piano playing, writing: “I can’t believe this is happening.” He shared emoji of a broken heart.

Almost one week after it was recorded, the boy in Ukraine who played the piano has not yet been publicly identified.

“We left [the hotel] minutes later to go out and report,” Leaming said. “I never saw the family again.”

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