Roman Totenberg, violin master and teacher, dies at 101


Concert violinist and influential teacher Roman Totenberg at his Newton, Mass. home in 2010. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff/THE BOSTON GLOBE)
May 9, 2012

Roman Totenberg, a world-renowned violinist and teacher who spent more than 80 years on the concert stage and continued to see students until the day before his death, died May 8 at his home in Newton, Mass. He was 101.

He had renal failure, said daughter Nina Totenberg, a longtime NPR legal correspondent.

Mr. Totenberg developed from a child prodigy who made his concert debut in Warsaw at 11 to an elder statesman who was still receiving rave reviews for performances in his 90s.

His long life in music was matched only by the drama of his times. As a child, he performed on the streets of Moscow during the Russian Revolution. After Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Mr. Totenberg fled Berlin for Paris in the early 1930s.

Before presenting his first U.S. concert in Washington in 1935, he was friends with many of the century’s greatest musicians and composers, including Igor Stravinsky, pianist Arthur Rubinstein, violinist Yehudi Menuhin and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.

He performed at the White House for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, was one of Mr. Totenberg’s early benefactors, lending him her husband’s Stradivarius violin.

In addition to being a celebrated soloist, with hundreds of recordings to his credit, Mr. Totenberg was a revered teacher, most notably at Boston University, where he taught for more than 50 years. His students included Mira Wang, an acclaimed violin soloist, and many members of leading orchestras around the world.

“He was from the time when living music and living history were integrated,” said Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., who studied with Mr. Totenberg for nine years. “He was enormously gifted. He was very imaginative and had terrific musical instincts.”

Roman Totenberg was born Jan. 1, 1911, to a Jewish family in Lodz, Poland. At the time, Poland was part of the Russian Empire. As a child, he moved with his family to Moscow, where his father, an architect, was working.

He was 6 when he began to study the violin with a neighbor, who was concertmaster of the Bolshoi Opera orchestra. Within a year, the pint-sized fiddler was performing at Communist Party gatherings during the Russian Revolution, introduced as “Comrade Totenberg.”

“During the revolution,” Nina Totenberg said in an interview, “he would play on the street, and people would give him bread and butter. He said it was the first time he realized the power of music, because people paid him with what was most valuable to them.”

In 1921, Mr. Totenberg’s family moved to Warsaw, where he studied at a conservatory and made his solo debut with an orchestra at 11. He received a gold medal from the Chopin Conservatory before moving to Berlin in 1928 to study with renowned teacher Carl Flesch.

As the Nazis consolidated power throughout Germany, Mr. Totenberg moved to Paris, where he studied mathematics at the Sorbonne and music with conductor Pierre Monteux and violinist George Enescu.

In 1935, after several private performances in Washington salons, Mr. Totenberg appeared at DAR Constitution Hall with the National Symphony Orchestra. A Washington Post review noted the “rousing welcome to the young Polish violinist,” who was called back to the stage for six curtain calls.

“His playing is pervaded with a continuous glow,” critic Ray C.B. Brown wrote, “a steady radiance of timbre which indicates his emotional identity with the music.”

Mr. Totenberg toured South America with Rubinstein in 1937 and performed at the White House, where Eleanor Roosevelt personally served him dinner. Through the 1940s, Mr. Totenberg was an itinerant virtuoso, performing as a soloist and chamber musician around the globe. He performed works from every period of the violin repertoire and premiered new pieces by many 20th-century composers, including Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud and William Schuman.

Mr. Totenberg, who was 11 when he had his first violin student, began teaching in earnest in the 1940s at conservatories in New York and Baltimore and at summer music festivals in Colorado, Massachusetts and Maine. In 1961, he joined Boston University and took on select private students.

“One of the joys of teaching,” Mr. Totenberg said in 1995, “is that you open . . . doors to students. It’s very gratifying to open a new door and have them say, ‘Oh, what a beautiful room!’ ”

Botstein, who was 13 when he began studying with Mr. Totenberg, said he could be an imposing, if quietly encouraging teacher.

“I remember distinctly after about eight months of exercises and scales, he smiled at me and said, ‘Not bad.’ ” Botstein said. “That was the highest praise. I was on cloud nine for months.”

Mr. Totenberg’s wife of 55 years, Melanie Shroder Totenberg, died in 1996. Survivors include three daughters, Nina Totenberg of the District, Jill Totenberg of New York and Amy Totenberg of Atlanta; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

In 1980, Mr. Totenberg’s Stradivarius violin was stolen after a performance in Cambridge, Mass. It has never been found.

During her father’s final days, Nina Totenberg said, many of his former students played for him at his bedside.

His ear remained as sharp as ever. Beckoning one of his protegees closer, so she could hear him more clearly, Mr. Totenberg said, “The D was flat.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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