Roman Totenberg, Violinist and Master Teacher, Dies at 101

Wednesday, May 09, 2012 - 12:00 PM

Roman Totenberg in Zakopane, Poland, Oct 2000 Roman Totenberg in Zakopane, Poland, Oct 2000 (Wikipedia Commons)

Editor's Note: Among Roman Totenberg's many career accomplishments, he was director of chamber music for WQXR during World War II, and played in two live programs each week as first violinist of the WQXR quartet.

Roman Totenberg, a violin instructor from Poland whose nine-decade career featured concert performances before kings and presidents and helped produce dozens of accomplished musicians, has died at age 101.

Totenberg began performing at age 7, and his passion for violin and teaching continued up to the day before he died, with him asking visiting former students to perform at his bedside, showing fingering techniques to others and whispering feedback on performances, his family said.

"He was lying in bed with his eyes closed and conducting them," son-in-law Brian Foreman said. "As soon as the violin and music started he kind of found a little more energy."

He was surrounded by relatives including one of his daughters, U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg, of Atlanta, when he died of kidney failure early Tuesday at his home in Newton, a Boston suburb, the family said.

Totenberg was born on Jan. 1, 1911, in Lodz, Poland. His talent became apparent at age 6 when he began receiving violin lessons in Moscow from a neighbor who was a concert master of the Bolshoi Opera.

During the turbulence of the Russian revolution and famine, Totenberg "literally became the breadwinner for his starving family because the payment for his performances was often bread and butter," said daughter Nina Totenberg, a legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio.

Totenberg made his debut as a soloist with the Warsaw Philharmonic at age 11. He later studied and performed with many of the great musical artists of the 20th century, including a stint as a teaching assistant for Carl Flesch in Berlin. He also studied with Georges Enesco and Pierre Monteux in Paris. He made his U.S. debut with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., in 1935.

Totenberg moved to the United States three years after he was invited to the White House to play for President Franklin D. Roosevelt following his 1935 performance with the National Symphony Orchestra. There, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt served dinner to the performers sitting on the floor in front of a table in the family quarters.

That informal experience was in sharp contrast to when Totenberg performed for Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III a few weeks earlier. Totenberg had to borrow a top hat and cape from the Polish ambassador to wear on stage and had to back off the stage to avoid turning his back to the monarch and offend him after the performance.

Totenberg's violin teaching career was almost as long as his life.

"I started teaching when I was 11, and I had a student who was 10," Totenberg said in a video documentary produced to celebrate his 100th birthday.

Totenberg and his late wife opened their home to students from all over the world who sought to tap into his skills and experience. They brought students from Sweden, Japan, Poland, Korea and China and took care of them as if they were their own children, said daughter Jill Totenberg, of New York City, who runs a public relations firm.

Totenberg "has students in virtually every major orchestra in the United States and several others in Europe," she said. "I think he touched so many lives and he will not be forgotten."

Violin soloist Mira Wang, who was born in China and was sponsored by Totenberg to study at Boston University, mourned the death of a man she called "the most generous and sensitive and warm" she has known.

"My parents gave me life, and he taught me how to live it," said Wang, who visited him on Sunday and performed for him for several hours. "I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this way."

A memorial service is planned in the fall. -- By RODRIQUE NGOWI 


Rodrique Ngowi can be reached at


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Comments [2]

Margaret from NYC

As a flutist, I am saddened to hear of Mr. Totenberg's passing. I am humbled and moved by his life and all those he has touched. he will be deeply missed by many.

Thank you for a beautiful obituary,
Margaret Kaczorowski

May. 10 2012 01:16 PM

How sad it is that we've lost such a man. From reading this article and his obituary, I feel as we are all diminished by his death. May he rest in peace and may his students continue to illuminate his talent and honor his memory.

May. 10 2012 10:54 AM

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