Ruth Slenczynska, 97, on her nine-decade career at the piano

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“Every decade in my life I gave up the idea of being a musician. In my twenties I said I’ll do this till I am 30. Then I became 30 and was still working with music, so I said I would stop when I was 40, and so on. Now, here I am in my nineties and I am still working in music and learning new things. Music has given me a way to understand life and people.”

January 15 is Ruth Slenczynska’s 97th birthday. It requires quite a leap of the imagination to take in everything she has experienced, but talking on Zoom from Pennsylvania, she is calm, admirably sanguine and as alert as somebody half her age.

If a laurel wreath were to be awarded to the pianist with the longest career in history (in fact, she has just signed a new deal with Decca Classics), it would surely be hers. Born in California to Polish parents in 1925, Slenczynska made her concert debut at the age of four (look up the Pathé newsreel entitled “A five year old prodigy”).

The list of her teachers reads like a roll-call of the great pianists of the prewar era — Artur Schnabel, Josef Hofmann, Egon Petri, Alfred Cortot and, most dauntingly, composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninov. To this day she wears a necklace with a miniature blue egg that Rachmaninov gave her when she was studying with him.

Her celebrity has taken her before the presidents of nations from Poland to the Philippines. 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 the piano because it helped him relax,” she says. “He had 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 fairly often.”

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 once he realised she could be a source of income. Her memoir Forbidden Childhood describes in painful detail how she was forced to practise nine hours a day, any mistake met with a slap on the cheek, any dissent meaning meals would be withheld. When the book was published in 1957, it was hailed as a turning point in the exploitation of child prodigies. She broke with her father as soon as she could — and with the piano too, only resuming her career after a decade-long absence.

A programme for five-year-old Ruth Slenczynska’s ‘farewell recital’

A woman in a black dress with polka dots sits at a piano
Ruth Slenczynska in the late 1950s

Not surprisingly, she is unwilling to dwell on her childhood these days. Those events are a long time ago and not the subject by which she wishes to be remembered. To any young pianist today suffering the same treatment, her advice is simply: “You will outlive it.”

Nine decades on from her debut Slenczynska is still at work. The pandemic may have curbed live performances, but there was compensation when a reissue of her Complete American Decca Recordings from 1955-63 won golden reviews, including a pick of the month from Gramophone magazine.

Now Slenczynska is back with a new album, recorded last year in New York. It is called “My Life in Music” and each track recalls a pianist or composer that she knew personally. They include Samuel Barber, a longtime friend; a Chopin prelude which she played at the memorial service of 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 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.”

One lesson with Rachmaninov was especially telling. He was living and teaching in Paris, and Slenczynska, then aged nine, was playing one of his pieces, when he stopped her and told her that her sound had no colour.

“But this is sound,” she said, “not something visual.” He took her to the window and they looked out at Paris in the spring. “The trees were mimosa with golden balls of blossom and he said that was the colour he wanted me to put into his music. ‘Show me,’ I asked him. If I had been 19, I would not have dared say those words, but I was just a little child, and he sat down at the piano and played it for me. That is how I learned to create the right sound. It comes not from the instrument alone, but from the person who plays it, and you have to hear in your mind the sound you want. That is the art of performing.”

Photo of a girl at the piano above the handwritten text: To my dear friend Mr Richard Jobin with love from Ruth Slenczynska, December 6 1931
A card from Ruth Slenczynska, aged six, to a friend

Inevitably, the new album has the feeling of a retrospective. These are pieces that Slenczynska has collected through her long life and part of the fascination in recording them now is the way her ideas have progressed over the years.

“Everybody in music changes from day to day,” she says. “I am not saying I am a better pianist now, just a different pianist. When I was young, I would play a Chopin mazurka like a girl with a bow in her hair, playing with her friends. As I became older, I would think of her as a young lady at a ball, trying to see if she could dance with a handsome officer. Later still, she would be a matron, proud of her home and her family, smiling at them at Thanksgiving. It was always the same music, but I was enjoying it in a different way.”

Through all those decades of experience, Slenczynska mentions no doubts or disappointments. She does not even acknowledge fears for the future, when classical music might seem to be in decline to many.

“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.”

‘My Life in Music’ is released by Decca Classics on March 18

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