“Every decade in my life I gave up the idea of being a musician. In my twenties I said I would do it until I was 30. Then I turned 30 and still worked with music, so I said I would quit when I was 40, and so on. Now, here I am in my nineties and I still work in music and learn new things. Music has given me a way to understand life and people. ”
January 15 is Ruth Slenczynska’s 97th birthday. It takes quite a leap of imagination to take in everything she has experienced, but when she speaks on Zoom from Pennsylvania, she is calm, admirably sanguine and as alert as someone half her age.
If a laurel wreath were awarded to the pianist with the longest career in history (in fact, she had just signed a new contract with Decca Classics), it would surely be hers. Slenczynska, who was born in California to Polish parents in 1925, made her concert debut at the age of four (watch the Pathé news role titled “A five-year-old prodigy”).
The list of her teachers reads like a noun from the great pianists of the pre-war era – Artur Schnabel, Josef Hofmann, Egon Petri, Alfred Cortot and, the most frightening, composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninov. To this day, she wears a necklace with a miniature blue egg that Rachmaninov gave her when she studied with him.
Her celebrity took her to the Philippines in front of the presidents of nations of Poland. She has played for Presidents Hoover, Kennedy, Carter and Reagan as well as Michelle Obama, and even played duets with President Truman. “He said he learned piano because it helped him relax,” she says. “He has a piano in the [White House] and they kept one for him in the presidential suite at the Carlyle Hotel in New York, where he visited quite regularly. ”
Her success is all the more remarkable because her early years were so difficult. Slenczynska’s father was a tyrannical figure who pushed his daughter as hard as he could, especially when he realized she could be a source of income. Her memoirs Prohibited childhood describes in painful detail how she was forced to exercise nine hours a day, encountered any mistake with a slap on the cheek, any disagreement meaning meals would be withheld. When the book was published in 1957, it was considered a turning point in the exploitation of prodigies. She broke up with her father as soon as she could – and with the piano too, and only resumed her career after a decade-long absence.
It is not surprising that she is not willing to dwell on her childhood these days. Those events are long ago and not the subject on which she wants to be remembered. For any young pianist receiving the same treatment today, her advice is simple: “You will survive it.”
Nine decades after her debut, Slenczynska is still at work. The pandemic may have combated live performances, but there was compensation when a reissue of her Complete U.S. Decca Surveys of 1955-63 won gold reviews, including a pick of the month from Gramophone magazine.
Now Slenczynska is back with a new album, which was recorded in New York last year. It’s called “My Life in Music” and each track is reminiscent of a pianist or composer she knew personally. They include Samuel Barber, a longtime friend; a Chopin prelude she played at the memorial service for piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz; and of course Rachmaninov.
“He was special because he was a creative artist,” says Slenczynska. “An instrumentalist wants to get the best out of his instrument, but a composer wants to convey his musical ideas. It’s because of Mr Rachmaninov that I think about music from the composer’s angle. This means not worrying about details, such as playing octaves correctly or using enough soft pedals, but focusing on the long line and what this music tells 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 over the age of 60. ”
A lesson with Rachmaninov was particularly telling. He lived and taught in Paris, and Slenczynska, then nine years old, was playing one of his pieces when he stopped her and told her that her sound had no color.
“But it’s healthy,” she said, “not something visual.” He took her to the window and they looked at Paris in the spring. “The trees were mimosa with golden flowers and he said it was the color he wanted me to put in his music. “Show me,” I asked him. If I was 19, I would not have dared those words, but I was just a little kid, and he sat down at the piano and played it for me. This is how I learned to create the right sound. It does not come from the instrument alone, but from the person playing it, and you need to hear in your mind the sound you want. It’s the art of acting. ”
The new album inevitably has the feel of a flashback. These are pieces that Slenczynska has collected through her long life and part of the fascination to record them now is the way her ideas have progressed over the years.
“Everyone in music changes from day to day,” she says. “I’m not saying I’m a better pianist now, just another pianist. When I was young, I played a Chopin mazurka like a girl with a bow in her hair and played with her friends. As I got older, I would think of her as a young lady at a ball, trying to see if she could dance with an attractive officer. Even later, she would be a matron, proud of her home and her family, and smile for them on Thanksgiving. It was always the same music, but I enjoyed it in a different way. ”
Through all those decades of experience, Slenczynska mentions no doubt or disappointments. She does not even acknowledge fears for the future, when classical music may be declining for many.
“We can not stop the future from happening, but there will always be people who will like their music. The arts are necessary because they fuel the human imagination. Everything in the world must be imagined before it can be achieved. If people do not use their imagination, they will not grow. ”
‘My Life in Music’ will be released on March 18 by Decca Classics
Follow @ftweekend on Twitter to find out more about our latest stories