Ruth Slenczynska was born in Sacramento, California on January 15, 1925. She gave her first professional recital at age four at Mills College in Oakland, California, playing Bach, Haydn, and Beethoven. Her father, Josef Slenczynski, was a Polish violinist who recognized his daughter's musical abilities when she could hum melodies back to him in perfect pitch at 16 months old. When she was three, he implemented a daily regime for her: nine hours of practicing interrupted briefly with tutoring in reading, writing, and geography.
As a child, she toured Europe and America and was labeled "The Miracle Child”. She performed in Berlin at age six, and the following year played in Paris accompanied by a full orchestra. When she was eight she made her debut in New York City, a concert a New York Times critic hailed as ''an electrifying experience, full of the excitements and the wonder of hearing what nature had produced in one of her most bounteous moods.''
Slenczynska played in Lynchburg on February 9, 1939 at the age of 14. The handbill advertising for her concert boasted, “since her New York debut, she has blazed a triumphant trail across the country and back with headlines that are rhapsodic eulogies. …Her dimpled, chubby hands with a span of one key above an octave, effortlessly encompass everything in piano literature with a gorgeous aplomb. …Yet there is nothing showy to this lovable, healthy Miss bubbling over with the joy of living, equally charming in womanly serenity or childlike simplicity.”
The emotional stress of endless practice and a heavy touring schedule forced her to withdraw from performing when she was 15. She later wrote that her father’s taxing demands on her as a child had been backed by physical and verbal abuse. She began to distance herself from her family, and after completing her high school education, she enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. Following her decision to search for her own path in college, her father never spoke to her again.
After a short engagement, Slenczynska married George Born in 1944, but the marriage only lasted ten years. Following her divorce she resumed her concert career, and later accepted a full-time position and the title Artist-in-Residence at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. In 1967 she remarried, this time to Dr. James Kerr, a fellow faculty member and professor of political science.
In 1957 Slenczynska published two books. One was a book of memoirs titled Forbidden Childhood, and it addressed what life as a child prodigy was like. Her second book concerned piano technique, and was titled Music at Your Fingertips: Aspects of Pianoforte Technique.
Following the resumption of her concert career in 1954, she has maintained an active musical life. To see a clip of one of her concerts in Japan in 2005, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ba50Ns2X8hs.
You can also see a clip from a 2010 concert in San Francisco here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gB546B1_ZFo. She celebrated her 90th birthday in January and performed a concert in Paris in April, 83 years after her debut in that city.
For more information, see the feature article The Wall Street Journal ran last fall at http://www.wsj.com/articles/pianist-ruth-slenczynska-89-shows-no-signs-of-diminuendo-1414515528
Written by Karissa Marken
Volunteer, Lynchburg Museum