For nearly four decades, Roman Totenberg and his precious violin danced on major orchestra stages around the world. It was crafted by Antonio Stradivarius in 1734.
But Totenberg’s intimate relationship with his rare instrument came to a shocking end. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has unfolded her family’s true crime story many times, but it never gets old.
“In 1980 my father — who was then also the head of the Longy School of Music in Cambridge — played a recital there,” she recalled.
After he stopped to chat with friends outside his office, Roman Totenberg experienced a nightmare. “When my father returned to gather up his beloved Stradivarius — his musical dancing partner, as he put it, of 30-some-odd years — was gone," Nina Totenberg said.
For the lifelong musician, who started playing as a child prodigy, it was like losing a limb. The theft captured international headlines and the FBI swooped in. Only an estimated 600 Stradivarius violins still exist.
But Nina said her father’s robbery case remained cold for decades. When people asked the Boston University professor if he thought his violin would ever be found, he said (as Nina Totenberg recited, recreating his Polish accent): “After I have kicked the bucket."
Sadly, he was right about that – and about the culprit. The lifted Strad reappeared in 2015, three years after Roman Totenberg died at the age of 101.
“The thief was the person my father always thought it was,” Totenberg said, “a guy named Phillip Johnson, who was an aspiring musician. He was not a student of my father's, but I think his ex-girlfriend was. And my dad was just very suspicious of him.”
After Johnson died in 2011, his ex-wife found a locked case, and inside it, a beautiful violin that said it was made in Cremona, Italy in 1734. Appraisers and the FBI determined it was Totenberg’s after the family confirmed its telltale pearl pegs.
His daughters were ecstatic and wrote a check for $100,000 to pay the insurance so they could reclaim their dad’s multi-million-dollar Strad. What they wanted most, though, was to find a new, passionate and compatible dance partner for the storied violin.
“We wanted to make sure it was going to be played in great concert halls around the world where my father played it until it was stolen,” Totenberg said, “Our thought was we needed to get that fiddle played because these violins don't prosper when they're just kept away.”
Finding the right player wasn’t easy for a few reasons, she explained. Her father’s Strad is relatively large and doesn’t fit every musician’s physique.
“Each instrument is an individual,” she said, “like a dance partner, they respond differently.”
After it was found Mira Wang, a Totenberg protege, struggled to play her former teacher’s Strad for its public debut in 2017.
Eventually a match was made, though, through Rare Violins of New York, the seller and shop that worked with Roman Totenberg’s instruments. They had helped him find a Guarneri to replace his stolen companion. The experts there also restored the recovered Strad after it was hidden away and not used for years.
In the end, a well-heeled, anonymous buyer offered to purchase the Ames-Totenberg Stradivarius (George Ames played it in the 1800s, hence the name), but only if a consortium was created that would loan exquisite and expensive instruments to young, rising musicians.
The first person to be paired with Roman Totenberg’s Strad is 19-year-old Julliard student Nathan Meltzer, “who plays so much like my father it's eerie,” Totenberg mused. “My father was a romantic player, he played with a great deal of emotion and I think Nathan does, too," she said.
Now Meltzer is bringing his new violin to the Longy School of Music, where it once disappeared behind the legendary performer and pedagogue’s back. The location’s weighty history isn’t lost on the young musician.
“The very same hall,” Meltzer said, “which is great and inspiring — and also slightly frightening.”
Over the past year, he’s been discovering the violin’s masculine, silky, vocal qualities — along with imprints he feels Totenberg left after playing it for so long.
“It's such a dark and resonant instrument,” Meltzer explained, “And his general musical voice was a very, very soulful one.”
Since receiving the violin, Meltzer said everywhere he goes musicians and past students talk about the influence Roman Totenberg had on their lives.
Nina and her sisters have been sharing stories, videos and recordings with Meltzer, including their father playing Franck’s Violin Sonata in the 1950s.
“It's also a piece that I hold very dear to my heart,” Meltzer said, “It was the icing on the cake to know that Mr. Totenberg enjoyed it as well. And listening to that recording I hear all the aspects of the piece that I really enjoy, and I also hear a lot of aspects that I hadn't noticed before.”
Meltzer wanted to play it at Longy’s “Homecoming” performance because he feels the composition’s story connect to Roman Totenberg’s experience of love and loss with his violin. When the music turns angsty and tumultuous, Meltzer thinks it evokes the deep heartbreak Totenberg felt after his Strad was stolen. Then the storm clears and the final movement brings a celebratory release of tension – like the relief so many people feel now that Roman Totenberg’s Strad is back in action.
Nina Totenberg looks forward to seeing Meltzer, her family and her father’s friends at a place where this long lost violin’s journey can come full circle.
“It really does bring tears to my eyes every time I think of returning to the scene of the crime and making it a happy occasion out of it,” she said, adding that there won’t be any dry eyes among the sisters. But there will be plenty of watchful eyes – the new violin guardian's included.
When asked about that Meltzer replied, “I'm not going backstage unless I have the violin in my hand.”
This segment aired on November 15, 2019.