97 Year Old Pianist and Last Living Pupil of Rachmaninov, Ruth Slenczynska, Release A New Album

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 15, 2024

Ruth Slenczynska Last Living Pupil of Sergei Rachmaninoff

The story of Ruth Slenczynska tells us an incredible amount about music. In 1925, Ruth Slenczynska was born in Sacramento, USA to two Polish parents. Slenczynska began as a child prodigy who performed her first piano recital at the age of 4, and some have even gone on to say that she is one of the greatest since Mozart. At just 5 years old, Slenczynska played a Beethoven piece that featured on television.

Slenczynska is the last living pupil of Russian conductor, composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. When Rachmaninoff was unable to perform on his tour due to illness, Slenczynska stepped in and played beautifully for the crowds, and they were not left disappointed.

Since then, Slenczynska has performed around the world, touring at some of the most reputable venues and has played for the likes of President Kennedy, Reagan and Carter, Michelle Obama, as well as playing duets with President Truman.

Her career has lasted for a massive 9 decades, but this star’s musical journey is not over. At the age of 97, Slenczynska has scored herself a global record deal with Decca Classics.

Despite formerly producing 10 albums with Decca records throughout her career, Slenczynska has not produced anything new for the past 60 years. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, Slenczynska ensured that she did not lose touch with her musical abilities or those who support her by posting videos of her playing the piano on YouTube.

Her newest album, My Life in Music, will be released later on in the year and will reflect her incredible journey and life experiences through the medium of music.

Rachmaninoff not only taught her how to play the piano incredibly, but he demonstrated how music can impact on greater life. Ruth says, ‘When I play a piece of music, I like to have it say something. A piece of music that doesn’t speak isn’t…it isn’t there. If I’m not speaking to my audience, they’re wasting their time and I’m certainly wasting my time. ’

In the end, music is more than just notes on a sheet of paper or sounds on a keyboard, but it tells a story and inspires us in ways we had never imagined possible. If you want to see more from Ruth go grab her latest album called “My Life in Music” and take a listen to her wonderful talents.

“Unbelievable! Whoever heard of a pianist my age making another album? I’m grateful if they like the music. Music is meant to bring joy. If mine still brings joy to people, then it is doing what it is supposed to do.”

We all hope to remain in control of our faculties as we age, but the extraordinary thing about American pianist Ruth Slenczynska is that she is still playing and loving playing, and recording!

In January 2022, she celebrated her 97th birthday and Decca, with whom she recorded comprehensively in the 1950s and 60s, has resigned her, with her new album titled ‘Ruth Slenczynska: My Life in Music’.

Most of us harbour a fascination for child prodigies. Ruth Slenczynska began playing the piano in the 1920s and gave her first concert when she was four years old, but denies she was a prodigy: “Nothing came to me easily. I was a stupid child, a slow child. That’s why I had to work between eight and nine hours every day.”

In fact, she worked so hard because she was subjected to verbal abuse and physical violence by her ambitious father. In her memoir, Forbidden Childhood, she records how he was determined even before she was born that she would be a musician. Twelve days after her birth he pronounced that Ruth would be “one of the world’s greatest musicians.”

Mozart, pianist Lang Lang, even golfer Tiger Woods shared demanding fathers who doubled as demanding teachers. How did Ruth survive her abnormal childhood to become a living legend, one of the 20th century’s greatest pianists and a beloved, successful teacher herself?

This is her story.

“Nobody chooses to be a prodigy. I was pushed very strongly by my father, who thought it was a way to make money. Really, I was never a child.”

YOUTUBERuth Slenczynska at Five

Slenczynska’s parents were Polish immigrants. Her father Josef  Slenczynska (1893-1951) had been a successful violinist and director of the Warsaw Conservatory but was wounded in the First World War which stymied his aspirations to be a soloist.

In America he had a letter of introduction to the then conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Josef Stransky, but a position in the orchestra never materialised, so the frustrated Josef ploughed all his hopes and dreams into his eldest daughter.

Ruth was born in Sacramento, California on January 15, 1925. Initially her father wanted her to play the violin, but when she asked to learn the piano at the age of three, he consented.

Thereafter her story becomes one of serial abuse and exploitation, her father, realising her marketability as a child prodigy could bring not just fame but a fortune to the family Slenczynska.

Ruth Slenczynska as a little girl with her father at the piano

Not surprisingly, Slenczynska is renowned as a Chopin interpreter. Her father made her practise all 24 Chopin Études before breakfast every morning.

The extent of her father’s brutality when she was still a toddler was only revealed in Slenczynska’s memoir, Forbidden Childhood, published in 1957. In one harrowing episode he removed a wooden handle from a shovel. “Thus detached, the object became, in Father’s words: ‘the magic stick’. That I was told, would serve when everything else had failed to make me respond properly.” And it did. Little Ruth endured numerous terrible beatings, though “he spared my hands.”

On other occasions, when she wanted to play with dolls or run around with the neighbourhood children, her father “poured a bucket of water on me. Frozen water. ‘That’s all baby stuff’ he’d say. ‘You’re not a baby, you’re a musician.’”

“It is because of Mr Rachmaninov that I think about music from the composer’s angle.”

Slenczynska made her debut aged four at Mills College, appeared on television for the first time the next year and, at six, gave her European debut in Berlin. She made her debut with a full orchestra in Paris at seven and her New York City Town Hall debut aged eight, the New York Time’s critic seduced by her “adorable smile and her marvellous pianism.”

Later she commented on that first intense decade as a touring wunderkind: “The one good thing that did come from all the concerts that I played, the only good thing, was that I had the experience of walking on stage. So many adults, people with talent, are terribly afraid of walking on stage and performing but I was not because I started so early. That’s the only good thing that came of it.”

7-year-old Ruth Slenczynska at the piano with conductor Alfred Cortot and Philharmonie de Paris

All this time and later, her father claimed he was her only teacher, despite the fact that he took the opportunity to introduce his tiny daughter to some of the greatest living celebrity pianists of the pre-war era including Artur Schnabel, Josef Hofmann, Egon Petri, (whose teacher Busoni had studied with Liszt), Alfred Cortot and Sergei Rachmaninov.

Slenczynska’s taste for romantic repertoire was to a great extent shaped by her contact with these legendary figures. When she was just four, pianist Josef Hofmann invited her to play for him. Amazed at what he heard, he organised a scholarship to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute. Later she studied abroad based in Paris, where she had free lessons and drank tea with Rachmaninov. “In one year, you will be magnificent. In two years, you will be unbelievable…would you like some cookies?”

“He was special because he was a creative artist.”

Slenczynska is considered to be Rachmaninov’s last living pupil and still wears a tiny Fabergé egg he gave her on a necklace.

“He was special because he was a creative artist,” she says. “An instrumentalist wants to get the best out of his instrument, but a composer wants to put his musical ideas across. It is because of Mr Rachmaninov that I think about music from the composer’s angle. That means not worrying over details, like playing octaves correctly or using enough soft pedal, but focusing on the long line and what this music is telling you. At that point, you are a pianist, but it takes a long time. I always say you are not a real pianist until you are past the age of 60.”

She always said the greatest lesson she learned from the Russian composer was that sounds have colour.

“One day he said: ‘Your sound has no colour in it’. He took me to the window and we looked down. ‘You see those Mimosa trees, with the little gold fluffy balls, that is the colour I want you to put into the E-flat major Prelude. He sat down and began to play and I could understand what he was asking me to do. And I could do what he did, I could bring that golden sound into my right hand so that the melody sang and he seemed pleased with me, that’s what I wanted.”

“I think that was the smartest thing I ever did as a youngster was to have the courage to leave home because that home was just crushing me in every way possible.”

Eventually the rigorous schedule of tours and practice imposed by her father took such a toll on Slenczynska’s emotional health that she decided to stop performing in public. She was 15 and eventually cut off from her father completely. “He couldn’t even count! That’s why he could never hold a job.”

Instead, she enrolled in a degree at Berkeley against her father’s wishes, as a psychology major, and ran away with a fellow student. It would be a decade before she’d resume playing in public again in 1951, the year of her father’s death. And even then, it was a tentative return, her self-confidence still undermined by her childhood trauma.

For four years in the early 1950s she toured with the Boston Pops Orchestra, enjoying an onstage rivalry with director Arthur Fiedler. “In the beginning Mr Fiedler got standing ovations and I didn’t. By the third year I started getting them too. I learned how to handle an audience, how to let them know you’re glad to be there.”

Finally, there was a concert in Chicago where a reviewer praised Slenczynska at Fiedler’s expense, writing: “Champagne and beer are not served together.”

“After that, they didn’t renew me,” she says. “There was room for only one star on that tour.”

“Everyone is an individual and everyone deserves special treatment.”

In the 1950s she began her celebrated epic series of recordings for American Decca in New York. “This was something completely new to me but I was willing to go along for the adventure of it. At that time there was no dubbing, so you had to play the thing as perfectly as you could. If you couldn’t get it right you had to try it again. It took me three weeks to do the complete 24 Chopin Études because I wasn’t satisfied. I was in my early 30s and I knew this was a big opportunity for me.”

An autographed photo of Ruth Slenczynska from 1955.

Slenczynska held a number of university teaching jobs whilst touring widely as a concert artist again. In 1964, she accepted a full-time position at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) as Artist-in-Residence, a title she retained until 1987.

She became a legendary teacher, perhaps not surprisingly with all those lessons she’d had from the great masters. “I had the honour of teaching so many wonderful young people, so many. Many of them have gone ahead to win prizes with their music, to earn their living through their music.” Including students who became teachers in Korea and Australia.

“Everyone is an individual and everyone deserves special treatment. I have had students from all over the world especially since this covid thing has taken over. They speak to me over YouTube or somehow. You have to find out what that special thing is and you have to try and bring it out.”

“Would you like to play the duet with me?”

Looking back over her storied life, Slenczynska seems bemused when talking about her many Presidential performances. She has played for Herbert Hoover, John F Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and played a four-hand duet with Harry Truman. “He had learned the piano because it helped him relax.”

She was in Washington for a concert when she received a mysterious phone call asking if she could alter her plans. The next morning, she was picked up “by a gorgeous car” and driven – to her surprise – to the White House.

“I walked in and there was Mr Truman, President of the United States. He shook my hand and said: ‘Would you like to play the duet with me?’”

The president, it transpired, had been practising a Mozart sonata and wanted to play with the best. “We sat down on the bench together and it went very well. He played very musically and attractively.”

Pianist Ruth Slenczynska laughing

Years later, after a concert in Kansas City, she had an unexpected visitor. “It was a nasty, cold evening with sleet coming down. I was changing backstage, when there was a knock at the door. I thought it was the lady who brought me. I opened the door and Mr Truman came in. ‘You played four hands with me once, remember?’ he said. And we had the most marvellous chat.” More recently she played as a guest of Michelle Obama.

“The arts are necessary because they fire the human imagination.”

Despite the pandemic, Slenczynzka has continued to play. During the first lockdown in 2020 she played the Beethoven sonatas on YouTube to celebrate his 250th anniversary.

In 2021 she played for the Chopin International Festival Friends Association in New York, and earlier this month gave a birthday concert in Pennsylvania.

“I’m a very lucky lady. I don’t have the usual ailments people my age usually complain of. And I practise. I don’t have the strength and endurance I once had but I practise, so I can play.”

She says she has no regrets: “Looking back doesn’t do any good. Look forward, and make that as beautiful as you can. We can’t keep the future from happening, but there will always be people who will love their music. The arts are necessary because they fire the human imagination. Everything in the world has to be imagined before it can be accomplished. If people do not use their imaginations, they will not grow.”


  • Rachmaninov, Sergei

    Prelude Op. 32 No. 5 in G major [03’28]

    Ruth Slenczynska (piano)

    Ruth Slenczynska: My Life In Music, Decca 485 2255

  • Chopin, Frédéric

    12 Études, Op. 10: Nos. 1 – 4 [10’29]

    Ruth Slenczynska (piano)

    Ruth Slenczynska – Complete American Decca Recordings, Deutsche Grammophon 484 1302

  • Liszt, Franz

    Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major III. Allegretto vivace – Allegro animato & IV. Allegro marziale animato [08’46]

    Vienna Symphony Orchestra + Ruth Slenczynska (piano)

    Ruth Slenczynska – Complete American Decca Recordings

  • Liszt, Franz

    12 Études d’exécution transcendante, S.139: No. 5 Feux follets. Allegretto [03’50]

    Ruth Slenczynska (piano)

    Ruth Slenczynska – Complete American Decca Recordings, Deutsche Grammophon 484 1302

  • Bach, Johann Sebastian

    Chromatic Fantasia And Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903: Fantasy and Fugue [12’19]

    Ruth Slenczynska (piano)

    Ruth Slenczynska – Complete American Decca Recordings, Deutsche Grammophon 484 1302

  • Schumann, Robert

    Liebeslied (Widmung), S. 566 [03’55]

    Ruth Slenczynska (piano)

    Ruth Slenczynska – Complete American Decca Recordings, Deutsche Grammophon 484 1302

  • Barber, Samuel

    Fresh from West Chester: Let’s Sit It Out [05’01]

    Ruth Slenczynska (piano)

    Ruth Slenczynska: My Life In Music, Decca 485 2255

  • Chopin, Frédéric

    Prelude Op. 28 No. 23 in F major [02’00]

    Ruth Slenczynska (piano)

    Ruth Slenczynska: My Life In Music, Decca 485 2255

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