BU Celebrates Violinist Totenberg On His 100th

Roman Totenberg in 2000 (Tomasz Skowroński via Wikimedia Commons)

Roman Totenberg in 2000 (Tomasz Skowroński via Wikimedia Commons)

BOSTON — Legendary violinist Roman Totenberg is turning 100.

The father of NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg is known as a living legend among classical musicians and music educators. He is also approaching his 50th anniversary teaching at Boston University, where he still trains young violinists today.

BU is throwing a birthday concert for Totenberg at Symphony Hall on Sunday, as they did on the occasion of his 90th and 95th birthdays.

That’s a lot of birthdays, and a lot of concerts performed in this man’s honor.

“Each time, probably they think this is the last one,” Roman Totenberg said, laughing. “Maybe they think (this is) the last one, too.”

At 100, Totenberg is frail but sharp and good-humored.

“As teachers we learn constantly. You explain something to a student, and suddenly it opens your mind, too.”
– Roman Totenberg

Totenberg’s health has declined the last few years. But as recently as that 2001 tribute, he was up on stage giving the concert, not just listening.

“And he played so beautifully, and got this rave review in the Boston Globe,” his daughter, Nina Totenberg, said.

Shortly after his performance of Karol Szymanowski’s 1st violin concerto at his 90th birthday concert, Totenberg retired from the stage with back problems. He was just a listener at his next birthday concert, in 2006.

“You know, when he turned 95, I think he was sort of ticked-off that everybody was paying all this attention to him,” Nina Totenberg said. “But now that he’s almost a centarian (sic), I think he’s kind of pleased by it.”

Even late in life, Roman Totentberg enjoys the glare of the spotlight.

“When he gave that 90th, or maybe the last recital he gave when he was 93, the place was packed,” Nina Totenberg said. “And he turned to us and he said, ‘You know, they always yell and cheer and stand for you when you are very young or very old, because you can do it at all.’ ”

And Roman Totenberg should know. He was just 11-years-old when he debuted as a soloist with the Warsaw Philharmonic in his native Poland. That was 1923.

Totenberg’s long life has involved a spectacular tour as a prodigy and daring escapes from two world wars. In his extended prime he played with all of the big orchestras, premiered works by all of the major composers of his time, and rubbed shoulders with celebrities and statesmen. From an era of classical music stars, he was among the brightest.

“There are very few left of that generation,” said violinist Peter Zazofsky, a colleague of Totenberg’s at Boston University. “Yes, he played all those concertos with those great conductors and great composers, but he’s also 50 years teaching here at Boston University, which is incredibly rare, because most of the people who played as much as he did don’t have the profile of being a great teacher.”

At Sunday’s concert Zazofsky will play Bartok’s 2nd violin concerto in Totenberg’s honor. Zazofsky first learned the notoriously tricky piece for a competition in the mid-1970s, judged by Totenberg.

“Well, he just said I was very brave,” Zazofsky said, laughing. “Translation: maybe foolish.”

Many violinists have at least one Roman Totenberg story like that. Totenberg’s teaching career is so extensive, it’s no surprise BU would make a habit of celebrating the man every five years. By all accounts, including his own, Totenberg has loved that part of his career.

“As teachers we learn constantly,” Totenberg said. “You explain something to a student, and suddenly it opens your mind, too.”

At Sunday’s concert, Nina Totenberg will be in attendance and NPR senior news analyst and longtime Totenberg family friend Cokie Roberts will emcee a special tribute. (Click here for info and tickets.)

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  • Cold Comfort

    I’m sorry to make light in any way; this man deserves all respect, but forgive me, I must tell this: On your main page, I thought the headline for this said “BU Celebrates Violinists Tooth”

    I couldn’t imagine what that meant? Did he play with a protruding incisor? Then, like one of those drawings where the women’s faces turn into a table pedestal, I saw what it really said. I was disappointed.

  • Letitia Hom

    Dear Mr. Ragusea, I would like to correct the information in your article and radio broadcast. Professor Totenberg was not “just a listener” at his 95th Birthday Concert in 2006. In fact, he performed Szymanowski’s “Fountain of Arethusa” at the concert, a recording of which is in the Boston University College of Fine Arts Library. A picture of him performing in this concert is located on the College of Fine Arts website (www.bu.edu/cfa/totenberg100) and there is a write up of this concert in the Spring 2006 issue of the magazine Bostonia.

  • Jackson Braider

    A possibly intriguing radio/audio story about a long-lived musician and teacher might possibly do no harm. For example: Why is the musical literature associated with Roman Totenberg so marginal to this piece? Including composers’ names suggests a sense of awareness in the producer’s corner, but without reference to the musical climates in which these various composers created and Toentberg worked — to wit: geography, workplace, epoch, genre and style — one feels adrift in a curious place of study e an appropriate topic for conversation at an okay cocktail party.

    Roman Totenberg is one of those singular musicians in modern music history who has transcended numerous generations of the concert music tradition into the 21st century — violinist as Devil, violinist as ambassador, violinist as curator of cultural heritage.

    So much of the western classical music tradition has been built upon a surprising series of non-musical assumptions that had no connection to personal, artistic, individual expression.

    And yet, consumers of said-same tradition often demand that a cadre of artists and aesthetes take creations of the western classical music tradition and “translate” them for a coterie of musical enthusiast.

    Adam: Be Warned: Writing about musical content is always going to be complicated.

  • http://www.wbur.org/people/aragusea Adam Ragusea


    Looking at the library records (http://www.bu.edu/library/music/Totenberg.html) I see that you are correct. I was going off of Nina Totenberg’s account. Perhaps the fact that she misremembered is an indication of just how many tribute have been played for this man, at BU and elsewhere!

    Thanks for listening, and for bringing that to our attention.

  • http://www.wbur.org/people/aragusea Adam Ragusea


    Indeed, this story merely grazed Roman Totenberg’s legacy as a violinist. Every story has a focus; this story was about how and why the tribute concerts for Totenberg have been stacking up in this late period of his life. As the occasion for this story is a tribute concert thrown by BU, where Totenberg has taught for nearly 50 years, I and my editor made the decision to focus on his legacy and longevity as a teacher, rather than as a performer.

    Believe me when I say, I know how tricky writing about music can be: I have a BM in composition from Penn State, and got mostly through a masters at Indiana University before I jumped ship for public radio. As a listener, I (like you, I suspect) often find radio pieces about music unsatisfying, in that they avoid musical specifics in favor of personal anecdotes. I am unquestionably guilty of the same sin with this story, but given its occasion and focus, I think we defined the editorial scope correctly.

    FYI, when we aired the story later in the day on Radio Boston (where we have a little more time to play with than in Morning Edition), we got into more specifics about Totenberg’s performing legacy and his role in the development of new music with Richard Dyer. You can listen to that here:


  • Bjgilby

    I was a Mr T. student 1976 – 78 at BU. Is there some way I can congratulate him on his centenary and his contribution to music and education? Barbara Gilby, Canberra, Australia

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