Meet Rachmaninov’s last surviving pupil, incredible 99-year-old virtuoso Ruth Slenczynska

15 January 2024, 10:21 | Updated: 15 January 2024, 10:34

99-year-old Ruth Slenczynska is the last-living pupil of Sergei Rachmaninov

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

A former child prodigy and the last living pupil of Sergei Rachmaninov, pianist Ruth Slenczynska celebrated her astonishing nine-decade long career with a new album.

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On Monday 15 January 2024, American pianist Ruth Slenczynska celebrated her 99th birthday.

At this landmark age, Slenczynska has achieved an astonishing nine-decade long career, having started performing as a child prodigy in the 1920s.

Two years ago, Slenczynska announced she had re-signed to the record label Decca Classics, for her first album with the company since the 1960s. Slenczynska’s new solo piano album, My Life in Music, was released in March 2022.

When asked about the album, Slenczynska responded: “Whoever heard of a pianist my age making another album?

“Music is meant to bring joy. If mine still brings joy to people, then it is doing what it is supposed to do.”

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Ruth Slenczynska
Ruth Slenczynska. Picture: Meredith Truax

Born in California in 1925, Slenczynska was the daughter of Polish immigrants. She made her concert debut at the age of just four years old, and one year later, performed a work of Beethoven on television (watch below).

At six, Slenczynska made her European concert debut in Berlin, and now over 90 years later, this legendary performer is still enchanting audiences across the globe with her piano skills.

A Five Year Old Prodigy (1930)

Notably, Slenczynska is considered to be composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninov’s last living pupil.

It is thought that the young pianist even once stepped in for the great Russian musician at the last minute when he was unable to perform due to an injury.

According to sources, the two would often drink tea together and to this day, Slenczynska wears a Fabergé egg necklace which Rachmaninov is said to have gifted her.

Slenczynska also had connections with another prominent composer, American Samuel Barber, and heard his famed Adagio for Strings before the work even had a title.

Slenczynska has performed for four US Presidents, including playing a Mozart duet with President Harry S. Truman, and performing at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

Read more: The time Princess Diana casually sat at a piano and played Rachmaninov

Beethoven Sonata #31 in A flat major, Op 110

During lockdown, Slenczynska uploaded videos of herself performing Beethoven sonatas to YouTube, to celebrate the German composer’s 250th anniversary.

Despite her age, the pianist is still an active performer and most recently played at Chopin International Festival and Friends in October 2021 in the Polish Embassy in New York. In February 2022, she celebrated her 97th birthday with a recital at Lebanon Valley College, Pennsylvania.

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Slenczynska’s album, My Life in Music, explores the music of Chopin, a composer who had a heavy influence on the young pianist’s childhood.

According to her memoir, Forbidden Childhood, Slenczynska was made to practise all 24 Études before breakfast every morning by her father, Josef Slenczynski, who was a skilled violinist.

She would subsequently earn a reputation as one of the most celebrated Chopin interpreters of her time.

The album also features music from composers such as DebussyGrieg and Bach, who all provide memories of her beloved piano mentors and teachers.

My Life in Music is out now on Decca Classics in conjunction with Universal Music Australia.