Roman Totenberg: Boundless Generosity

By Cathy Fuller

Roman TotenbergI wish I had known him. For as long as I have been musically conscious, I have felt the presence here in Boston of Roman Totenberg.

Born in 1911, he began as a child prodigy and ultimately became an artist and teacher who would touch the lives of countless musicians around the world. In fact, so widespread was his reach as a mentor that his daughter, Nina Totenberg (NPR's Legal Affairs correspondent) dares to surmise that there is probably not a major orchestra in Europe or the United States that doesn’t have at least one player who studied with him.

His life began in Poland and his memories took him back to the tumultuous years of the Russian Revolution. He studied in Berlin in the 1920’s with Carl Flesch, and later in Paris with one of the most remarkable geniuses music has known, Georges Enesco.

Totenberg toured in his early years with the brilliant Polish composer/pianist Karol Szymanowski. In his travels across the globe, he premiered works by Hindemith, Barber, Penderecki and Milhaud. He toured South America with Arthur Rubinstein.

His playing was surely deepened as he bore witness to revolution and war while coming of age. Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, studied the violin with Totenberg for nine years, and told the Boston Globe’s Jeremy Eichler that, for Totenberg, “music was the natural language of freedom. It was not decorative. When he taught and when he played, you were consciously aware that he owned every phrase.”

Roman Totenberg settled here in the United States in 1938. He toured internationally before making his home in Boston and taking up a teaching post at Boston University. He directed the Longy School of Music from 1978 to 1985. He also taught at Aspen, Tanglewood, and Blue Hill Maine’s Kneisel Hall.

Last year, on May 8th, he passed away at the age of 101. And until the very end, he kept on teaching. Through the week leading up to his death, a long line of loving violinists came to his Newton bedside to pay their respects and to play for him. He offered them guidance even in his final hours.

Totenberg’s daughter Amy told the Globe, “He had such a feeling for youth, and had so many people of all ages who filled his life that he didn’t grow old.’’

All three of Roman Totenberg’s daughters are ferociously gifted – Amy is a federal judge in Atlanta; Jill is CEO of the Totenberg Group, a communications firm in New York; and then there’s Nina – Legal Affairs correspondent for National Public Radio, who wrote a beautiful tribute and obituary for her father.

Classical New England has some precious performances that were recorded by our WGBH engineers years ago. Listen for Roman Totenberg’s artisty throughout the day today as we mark the anniversary of his passing.

To hear Roman Totenberg's artistry in performance at the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum, click on "Listen" above.


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