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"Forbidden Childhood" by Ruth Slenczynska

Forbidden Childhood
Ruth Slenczynska and Louis Biancolli
Garden City, New York : Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1957
263 pp.

This wonderful book is the first-person account of Slenczynska’s childhood and early adulthood. It is not limited to her career as a pianist, though there is not much else to her early life on which to expound. And therein lies the tale of Slenczynska and her father.

Why review a book published 56 years ago? Because it is a tremendous resource for musicians and historians alike, and many readers may not have encountered it. Slencynska was one of the most astonishing musical prodigies of the 20th century, making her public debut at the age of 4, and then performing almost constantly until the age of 14. She was driven by a tyrannical and abusive father who budgeted every minute of her life for ten years but who finally gave up – almost disowning her – when her reviews became less than ecstatic. She was able to resume her career years later, as retold in the latter part of this book.

Her account gives us a view of the music industry in the first half of the 20th century from the point of view of a very young insider. But it gives us other insights, which are practically unique. Ruth Slencynska studied with or was otherwise acquainted with many of the giants of the period: Rachmaninoff, Schnabel, Boulanger, Cortot, Hoffman, Enesco, Fiedler, Godowsky, Rubinstein and others. Because of her age, several were warmer and more open with her than they might have been with other students. I believe that we get to see many of these personalities in a light not found elsewhere. Rachmaninoff, for instance, always insisted that he was not teaching her but would have her over – as a “social call” - to play for him for a few hours while he made suggestions. He would joke with her; his daughter would serve her tea.

As you can tell from the title, the other main theme of the book is the total domination of her by her father, and this is one of the most blood-chilling accounts of a stage parent ever chronicled. Corporal punishment has been controversial topic in the past 50 years, but there are very few people in our society who would agree with slapping a child for hitting a wrong note. (I will not say there are no such people; I’m old enough to remember dance teachers who would give painful whacks with a cane for incorrect positions, etc.)

The end of her childhood career did bring about some autonomy, as her father agreed to pay for her college education if she could get accepted. (He knew this would be difficult because of her nearly exclusive focus on the piano until she was a teenager.) She did, and slowly gravitated toward music studies, eventually becoming a piano teacher at two Bay-area colleges. She was happy to continue thus, especially after marrying for the first time. Ironically, her husband strongly encouraged her (some might say bullied) to resume concertizing. He persisted in this even after her warning that their marriage might not survive the attempt. She was right about the marriage, but did finally find happiness and satisfaction as a performer. (And we know, from other sources, also later resumed her teaching career and remarried.)

The account of her young adult career includes a poignant anecdote about a recital given in postwar, bombed-out Cologne. Her reaction to the sight of the city was that no one could possibly be interested in a piano recital when life was such an obvious daily struggle. But the impresario who arranged the recital assured her that it would be a ‘big event’ to these people. And indeed, the hall filled with concertgoers anxious for some warmth in their lives. Her account of the gradual cessation of page-turning (many of the audience brought scores) as they became more absorbed in her performance is memorable, as well as her description of what that night meant in her finding her voice as an artist. In her words, “[t]he ghosts of Josef Slenczynski and his fabulous automaton had vanished for good.”

What really won this reader to Ms. Slencynska was her adult approach to music and performing as ‘taking life as you find it’. No high-minded romantic flights of fancy or poetic phrases about the artist’s burden; simply a love for the piano and a determination to practice a craft to perfection. Which is something that we can all share with her.

--Stewart Kautsch (more on the author..)