Ruth Slenczynska: Last of the Great Romantics

Ruth Slenczynska is the last living musical link to Sergei Rachmaninoff.


About Ruth Slenczynska

Ruth Slenczynska, American pianist, was born in Sacramento, California on January 15, 1925. Her father, Josef Slenczynski, a violinist, imposed a rigorous and disciplinary practice routine on her beginning at age three. She gave her first recital at age four and took lessons with Arthur Schnabel, Egon Petri, Alfred Cortot, Joseph Hofmann, and even performed for Sergei Rachmaninoff. She performed her debut in Berlin at age six, and made her debut in Paris with a full orchestra at age seven. She became an instant musical sensation in Europe, heralded as the first child prodigy since Mozart. However, the strain of practice and the touring schedule imposed upon her by her father caused great emotional stress upon her, and by the age of fifteen she withdrew from performing.

Ms. Slenczynska applied and was accepted to the University of California where she met fellow student George Born. The two eloped after a short engagement in 1944 and remained married until 1953 when the marriage ended in divorce. In 1954, the artist resumed her concert career and established herself as a pianist of impeccable technique and considerable musical insight. In 1964, she accepted a full-time position at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville as Artist-in-Residence, a title she retained until 1987. Ms. Slenczynska married in 1967 to Dr. James Kerr, a professor of political science at SIUE. She published a book of memoirs, Forbidden Childhood (NY, 1957), which deals with life as a child prodigy, and a book on piano technique, Music at Your Fingertips: Aspects of Pianoforte Technique (NY, 1961).

Ruth's life changed dramatically with the death of her beloved husband in 2001. She completed her remaining part-time teaching assignments at the university, moved to New York City, and accepted an Artist-in-Residence teaching position at Soochow University in Taipei, Taiwan for the 2002-2003 academic year. While in Taiwan, Ruth was invited to perform in Japan, a first for the 78-year-old pianist. This led to subsequent trips to Japan and a highly-acclaimed series of six CD recordings under the Liu MAER label, entitled The Art of Ruth Slenczynska. The fourth CD in the series was recorded in Okayama one week after her 80th birthday. The program included the Chopin Ballades and Scherzi and ten selections from Prokofiev's ballet Cinderella, Op. 97.

In May 2005, Ruth Slenczynska culminated her 80th birthday year public performances with a "final" three-concerto program with the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra. There, she performed the Liszt Piano Concerto #1, Chopin's Piano Concerto #2, and Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto #1 to an enthusiastic capacity audience.

Although not giving large public piano concerts any more, Ruth Slenczynska maintains an active musical life. She teaches private students in New York City, gives master classes, and acts as a juror for various piano competitions.


Transcript

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.

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