Written by NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg, daughter of the late Roman Totenberg
World-renowned concert violinist and teacher Roman Totenberg, whose professional career spanned nine decades and four continents, died Tuesday at the age of 101.
His death was as remarkable as his life. Totenberg made his debut as a soloist with the Warsaw Philharmonic at age 11, performed his last when he was in his mid-90s, and was still teaching, literally, on his deathbed. This week, as word flew around the musical world that Totenberg was in renal failure, former students began arriving at his home in Newton, Mass., to see the beloved “maestro.”
Mainly, he wanted to hear them play, and several of the sessions turned into long lessons, with Totenberg, eyes closed, conducting with one hand to keep the tempo, slowing the phrasing here and there, and at one point, asking Daniel Han, now a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra, to hand over his violin so Totenberg could show him some piece of fingering. With another former student, he spoke so softly, she had to bend her ear to his lips. His words: “the D was flat.”
Virtuoso Violinist Mira Wang, who came to study with him from China decades ago, played at Totenberg’s bedside for hours on Sunday. Every time she would stop, Totenberg had just one word: “more.” And still they came, one after another, describing how Totenberg had changed their lives. So widespread was the outpouring, that one former student in Poland had to be dissuaded from jumping on a plane to the United States.
Totenberg was born on Jan. 1, 1911, in Lodz, Poland. He studied in Berlin with Carl Flesh and in Paris with Georges Enesco and Pierre Monteux, won the Mendelssohn Prize in Berlin, and the Wienawski and Ysaye Medals of Poland and Belgium. In 1935, he made his U.S. debut with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.
The performance was such a success that he was invited to the White House to play for President Roosevelt. Totenberg had a few weeks earlier played for the king of Italy, and that affair was so formal that he had to borrow a top hat and cape from the Polish ambassador, and back off the stage so as not to offend the king. In contrast, after the performance at the White House, Mrs. Roosevelt served dinner in the family quarters, serving to each of the performers from a sitting position on the floor in front of a table. As Totenberg would later recount, he thought to himself as he compared the two events, “this is the country for me!”
Three years later, Totenberg formally immigrated to the U.S. under the distinguished artist visa program. Because of the worsening world situation, concert tours in Europe were no longer possible, though in 1937 he toured South America with pianist Arthur Rubenstein. For the most part, though, he stayed in the U.S., especially in New York, where he became the concertmaster and frequent soloist for the New Friends of Music orchestra. Following the U.S. entry into World War II, he became director of chamber music for WQXR radio, and played in two live programs each week as first violinist of the WQXR quartet. After the war, Totenberg left WQXR, and with Adolph Baller and Gabor Reito, formed the Alma Trio. In 1946, he was involved in forming the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, and in the early 1950s played a similar role in the formation of the Aspen Music Academy.
During these years, Totenberg soloed with every major orchestra in the U.S. and Europe, playing frequent recitals in major cities as well. An August 1957 review by The New York Times critic Howard Taubman called Totenberg “a brilliant performer” who “surmounted every technical hazard with ease, relating the thorniest passages to the design of the music… like the composer himself, he was a searching singer.”
In 2001, after a concert in Boston, The Boston Globe’s Richard Dyer would write: “Totenberg’s playing was miraculous… what he does is untracked, unadorned, but paradoxically, profoundly mysterious in its very clarity. He was particularly spellbinding in the long cadenza he wove together himself in the close — this was pure storytelling enchantment.”
While playing all of the classical repertoire, Totenberg also promoted contemporary music and composers. As a young violinist, he toured with Karol Szymanowski, eventually premiering his concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Among the other works he premiered were concertos by Samuel Barber, William Schuman, Gardner Read, and a capriccio by Krysztof Penderecki.
Totenberg first met composer Darius Milhaud in Paris, after the violinist’s debut there in the 1930s, which Milhaud reviewed. More than two decades later, Totenberg would premiere Milhaud’s violin concerto, with the composer conducting, in Aspen, and in Germany with the Berlin Philharmonic. Totenberg also premiered sonatas written by Hindemith, Honneger, Martinu and others.
Totenberg’s teaching career, he often said, was even longer than his performance career, since he began at age 9 (his student was 8), and his teaching ended only at his death.
In Boston, he chaired the string department at Boston University from 1961 to 1978, and was named co-chair again in 1994, after a long stint as director of the Longy School of Music in Cambridge. In earlier years, he taught at the Mannes School of Music in New York City, was chairman of the string department at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore.
In 1983, Totenberg was named “Artist Teacher of the Year” by the American String Teachers Association, and in 1996 he was awarded Boston University’s Metcalf Prize as the University’s outstanding teacher of the year.
In the summers, Totenberg always remained busy, teaching and playing, spending more than a decade in Aspen, at Tanglewood, and, for the last 37 years, at Kneisel Hall in Blue Hill, Maine.
Totenberg also served often on international musical juries. Among the more memorable: his service on the jury for the Menuhin Prize with his old friend Yehudi Menuhin the year before Menuhin’s death, and his service on the jury for the Tchaikovsky in Moscow in 1991. It was Totenberg’s first return to Moscow in more than a half-century.
Over the years, Totenberg recorded with all the major labels. Most recently, Arbiter Records has put out a series of remastered and digitized recordings of some of Totenberg’s performances.
Totenberg is survived by three daughters: Nina Totenberg, the legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio; Jill Totenberg, the CEO of the Totenberg Group, a strategic corporate communications firm in New York; and Federal Judge Amy Totenberg of Atlanta. Other survivors include his niece, Elizabeth Wilk, of New York City; five grandchildren, including Melanie Totenberg and Emily Green, Clara Green, Sonya Green, and Naomi Green, and thousands of students around the globe.