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Roman Totenberg: A Musical Life Remembered

At 101, Roman Totenberg was teaching students up to the very end of his life.
Suzanne Kreiter
The Boston Globe via Getty Images
At 101, Roman Totenberg was teaching students up to the very end of his life.

[Roman Totenberg was a child prodigy who became a violin virtuoso, as well as a master teacher who passed along his command of craft and his love of music — and life — to thousands. He was also the man you wanted to sit next to at the table because he was so funny. Totenberg died this week at the age of 101, surrounded by loving family, friends and students. We asked his daughter, Nina Totenberg, for this remembrance. — Scott Simon]

My father's death was as remarkable as his life. Last week, as word spread through the music community that he was suddenly dying, his former students began flocking to his home, driving sometimes hours through the night to get there. We even had to dissuade a Polish violinist and composer from hopping a plane for the States.

There's no crying in baseball, or in music. And so he told these amazing musicians to play for him. No matter how accomplished they were, he was still their teacher. Eyes closed, he listened, conducting with his right hand, slowing the tempo here and there for better phrasing, or clapping to keep the tempo up, and even asking for the violin to demonstrate a piece of fingering. One former student, playing the Brahms Violin Concerto at his bedside, couldn't hear his whispered words, so she gently put her ear to his lips. With elegant distinctness, he said quite clearly, "The D was flat."

As they left, the former students all said some version of the same thing. "He changed my life." Soloist Mira Wang, who came from China at age 19 to study with him decades ago, said simply, "My parents gave me life. He taught me how to live it. "

My father's career really began on the streets of Moscow during a famine, when he played for bread and butter that fed his family.

"Invariably, the people give us white bread and butter and other things to eat, which we'd take home," my father recalled. "And that was actually the first impression of the value of the art — what can it bring to you to survive, so to say."

Roman Totenberg made his debut as a soloist with the Warsaw Philharmonic when he was 11. Over the course of time, he would solo with every major orchestra in the U.S. and Europe, playing all the classics and premiering new works by many of the great contemporary composers, all of whom were his friends. Once, Benny Goodman even called him up onstage to jam with the band.

His American debut came in 1935 with the National Symphony Orchestra, playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto, which he recorded decades later.

The U.S. debut was such a sensation that he was invited to the White House to play for President Roosevelt. Just weeks before, my father had played for the king of Italy at a concert so formal, he had to back off the stage so as to keep facing the monarch. At the White House, the artists were invited to the president's private residence after the performance, where Mrs. Roosevelt served each of them dinner. Reflecting on the difference, my father thought to himself, "This is the country for me."

Shortly after that, he began a tour across the country, traveling by train. In one story, he recalled how he was anxious to practice his English.

"I went to the dining room and was seated next to a rather charming young lady who was obviously a Texan with a nice drawl," he said. "And after a while, she would ask me to repeat some things and so on. And finally she said, 'I have such hard time understanding you Yankees.' "

In the past three days, I found myself listening to some of Dad's recordings — there were hundreds of them over the years, and about a dozen issued on CD. They are, quite simply, astonishing in their breadth and emotion — from the technical wizardry of Paganini to the heart-wrenching and powerful Bach "Chaconne."

Once, after a big concert when he was in his 90s, we came home with armloads of flowers, basking in the glow of stomping, standing ovations. "You know, Ninotchka," my dad said with a twinkle in his eye, "when you are very young and can do it, they scream and yell, and when you are very old and can do it, they scream and yell. I have been lucky enough to do it at both ends."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.

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