Roman Totenberg, 1911-2012
Roman Totenberg’s career as a world renowned virtuoso violinist and revered teacher spanned nine decades and four continents. His extraordinary life is documented in thousands of pages of music, correspondence, photographs, programs, videos and other material now in the Library of Congress Music Division.
Totenberg made his debut as a soloist with the Warsaw Philharmonic at age 11, performed his last concert when he was in his mid-90s, and at 101, on his deathbed, he was still teaching. His long life in music was matched by the drama of the times in which he lived. As a child, he played his violin on the streets of Moscow for bread during the Russian revolution, and in the 1930s, having settled in Germany, he left, first for Paris, and then the U.S.
Roman Totenberg was born on January 1, 1911, in Łódź, Poland. He studied in Berlin with Carl Flesch and in Paris with Georges Enescuo and Pierre Monteux. He won the Mendelssohn Prize in Berlin, and the Wieniawski 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 sensation that he was soon invited to the White House to play for President Franklin Roosevelt. Totenberg had a few weeks earlier played for the king of Italy, and that affair was so formal that he had to back off the stage so as not to offend the king. In contrast, after the performance at the White House, Mrs. Roosevelt personally served dinner to the performers in the White House family quarters. As Totenberg would later recount, he thought to himself as he compared the two events, “This is the country for me!”
Three years later, he 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 Artur Rubenstein. For the most part, though, Totenberg stayed in the U.S., especially New York, where he became the concertmaster and frequent soloist for the New Friends of Music Orchestra.
After 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, he left WQXR, and with Adolph Baller and Gabor Rejto, formed the Alma Trio. In 1946, he was involved in forming the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Calif., and in the early 1950s played a similar role in the formation of the Aspen Music festival. During these years, he soloed with every major orchestra in the U.S. and Europe, playing frequent recitals in major cities as well.
An August 1957 review by 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 wrote of the 90-year-old violinist: “Totenberg’s playing was miraculous. … What he does is untricked, 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 Krzysztof 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 in Aspen, with the composer conducting. Totenberg also premiered sonatas written by Hindemith, Honegger, Martinů and others. The collection contains a noteworthy Totenberg essay, “A decade with the second,” remarking how many great violin concerti were initially panned and reviled, until played in new ways and championed by violinists.
His teaching career, he often said, was even longer than his performing career, since he began at age 9 (his student was 8), and his teaching ended only at his death. For students and audiences throughout the world, Totenberg was a vibrant living link to nineteenth and twentieth century European composers and a distinctive classical musical tradition of performance and teaching.
In Boston, he chaired the string department at Boston University in the years 1961-78, and returned as chairman again in 1994, after a long stint as director of the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Mass. In earlier years, he taught at the Mannes School of Music in New York City and was chairman of the string department at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore.
In 1983 he 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, at Kneisel Hall in Blue Hill, Me.
Totenberg also served often on international musical juries. Among the more memorable was his service on the jury for Menuhin Prize with his old friend Yehudi Menuhin the year before Menuhin’s death, and his service on the jury for the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow in 1991. It was Totenberg’s first return to Moscow in some three quarters of a century.
Over the years, Totenberg made hundreds of recordings, with all the major record labels. Most recently, Arbiter Records has put out a series of remastered and digitized recordings of some of Totenberg’s performances.
Totenberg’s papers are particularly noteworthy because unlike many musician émigrés to the U.S in the 1930s, he came early enough that he and his mother were able to bring with them photos, clippings, recordings and other material that so many Jews who fled later had to leave behind. His papers also attest to the anxiety and stress of a man whose family and friends remained behind, whom he attempted to aid through every means conceivable, though most remained beyond his help. He facilitated his mother’s departure from Paris in 1940 on one of the last boats to leave Europe, assisting her to obtain a Portuguese visa through the rogue actions of the Portuguese consul general in Bordeaux, France, Aristides de Sousa Mendes.
Totenberg’s mother joined her son in New York, but his sister, brother-in-law and niece, were unable to escape Poland, and were forced into the Warsaw ghetto. Totenberg’s letters during this time portray an agonizing portrait of his desperate efforts to aid his family, sending money, pulling strings to try to get visas and developing contacts in an effort to get them out. In the end, his brother-in-law would die in the Ghetto, but his sister and niece would escape and hide out for the rest of the war. His niece, Elizabeth Wilk, provided the Library many important letters from the war years.
Professionally, Totenberg also faced challenges as an émigré musician. Before 1933 he had begun to establish himself in the musical life of Germany. When he saw the handwriting on the wall and moved to Paris, he again built a network of connections and a record of performing successes in Paris, London, and elsewhere in Western Europe. But as the 1930s progressed, Nazi censorship and domination cut off an increasing number of concert venues.
Once in the U.S. Totenberg found a new country he loved, a new language to learn (adding to six others he spoke), and a new culture to master.
The Totenberg experience was not uncommon, as demonstrated in the holdings of the Library of Congress Music Division. Erich Korngold built a career in Hollywood as a composer for films. Harpsichordist Wanda Landowska commanded enormous respect as a performer in the States, and Arnold Schoenberg continued a successful career as a composer. But others, like Béla Bartók, and Bohuslav Martinů, had difficulty in assimilating into a dramatically different society.
Totenberg, a born optimist, might have nonetheless foundered during the war years, but for his American-born wife Melanie, who during their 56 years of marriage was his adored mate, secretary, and loving promoter. The Totenberg papers provide ample evidence of how the duo worked in tandem.
Melanie Totenberg died in 1996, 16 years before her husband, but Roman Totenberg persevered, surrounded by hundreds of students from around the Globe, many of them professional musicians, who kept in touch with him, and visited him regularly. For all his fame, he seemed to take more pride in the accomplishments of his three daughters—NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg; Jill Totenberg, CEO of a corporate communications firm; and federal Judge Amy Totenberg--as well as the accomplishments of his former students as they performed on the concert stages of the world.