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.