Ruth Slenczynska: The Last of the Great Romantics
As a child, Ruth Slenczynska studied under Rachmaninoff. At age 92, all she learned can still be heard in her music.
Ruth Slenczynska is an esteemed pianist and the last living pupil of the great Russian composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Born in 1925 in Sacramento, California, she began playing piano at age 3 under the tutelage of her Polish father. A child prodigy, she gave her first concert at age 4, made her debut with a full orchestra at age 7, and started studying with Rachmaninoff at age 9. Overwhelmed by the regime of her strict father, she stopped playing in public at age 15, resuming after her graduation from the University of California, Berkeley.
Slencynska published a memoir, Forbidden Childhood, in 1957 and taught at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville from 1964 to 1987. She continues to perform well into her 90s, releasing a retrospective album, My Life in Music, in 2021.
As a child, Ruth Slenczynska was prodigious in a way seldom seen since Mozart. She began playing the piano when she was three after her father, a violin teacher, caught her eavesdropping on his lessons and discovered that she had a remarkable musical ability.
Ruth Slenczynska: And then after the lessons were over, we’d go to the upright piano and I would pick out the tunes that the different people were playing. I would wait until I got the exact pitch that they were playing and my father said I had perfect pitch. And he tested me on it. And that’s how he knew I had to be musical, although he looked at me when I was two hours old and told my mother that I had strong hands. I’d be a good musician.
Practicing piano with her father nine hours a day, every day, made Ruth skillful enough to give her first public performance at age four and to tour Europe at six. But her father was tough, abusive by today’s standards. Eventually, he would kill her interest in playing piano.
Slenczynska: He said if I was talented or intelligent, this wouldn’t have to go on so I believed I was not talented or intelligent. My two sisters both ran away from home because they thought it was a difficult place to live. And I was just doing it because of all the work I was putting in, which is a believable story because you do anything for eight or nine hours a day, every single day, you’re bound to get at least something out of it.
Her hard work and long hours of practice paid off. She garnered stellar reviews and caught the attention of many of her older, more revered contemporaries. Among them, Sergei Rachmaninoff, the great late-Romantic Russian composer whom she began taking lessons with when she was nine. She remembers when her father took her to meet him.
Slenczynska: He had a long hand which he pointed way down to me and he said, “You mean that plays the piano?” I was just kind of taken aback.
Ruth Slenczynska is the last living link to Rachmaninoff, and she remember his lessons being both practical and esoteric.
Slenczynska: He took me to the window, he said, “Look down at those trees, mimosa trees. And I want you to make a sound that has the golden color of mimosa in it.” I said, “How do you put color into a sound?” I never imagined the concept of color in a sound. I said, “Show me.” Now, that was the big advantage of being nine years old because a child just naturally asks.
Slenczynska remembers Rachmaninoff’s physical presence. He was a charismatic 6’8″ with enormous hands. Yet, she says she had an even greater connection to the music of Frédéric Chopin because they both had to adapt their small hands to the piano.
Slenczynska: Teachers had me train my hands so that many hours a day were spent on doing these exercises. And I read about Chopin. That he was trained that way, too, but he did not like the scales exercises, just as I did not like mine. But he—being a musician that was creative—he decided to write his own etudes. And his etudes are beautiful! They’re easy to like. And he wrote them for the purpose of developing strong hands so he’s my friend.
Now in her early 90s, Ruth Slenczynska is still an accomplished pianist, giving lessons and performing all over the world. And more than 80 years later, she still carries Rachmaninoff’s most important lessons with her.
Slenczynska: The color of a sound, also that if you read the story, that it gives life to a piece of music. If you go to a museum and see a beautiful picture, that also can be told with your fingers.