Tuesday 29 May 2012
Roman Totenberg, who died of renal failure on 8 May at the age of 101, was a violinist and teacher from Poland whose nine-decade career featured performances before kings and presidents. He also helped nurture dozens of musicians.
Totenberg began performing at the age of seven, and his passion for the violin and for 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. "He was lying in bed with his eyes closed and conducting them," his son-in-law Brian Foreman said.
Totenberg was born on 1 January 1911, in Lodz, Poland. His talent became apparent at the age of six when he began taking violin lessons in Moscow from a neighbour, a concert master at the Bolshoi Opera. During the Russian revolution and ensuing famine, Totenberg became the breadwinner for his family, "because," his daughter Nina said, "the payment for his performances was often bread and butter."
He made his solo debut with the Warsaw Philharmonic aged 11, going on to study and perform with many of the great artists of the 20th century. He moved to the US three years after he was invited to the White House to play for President Roosevelt following his 1935 performance with the National Symphony Orchestra.
There, the 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 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 teaching career was almost as long as his life. "I started teaching when I was 11, and I had a student who was 10," he said in a documentary celebrating his 100th birthday. Totenberg and his late wife opened their home to students from Sweden, Japan, Poland, South Korea and China, taking care of them as if they were their own children, his daughter Jill said. She added that her father "has students in virtually every major orchestra in the US and several others in Europe."
The Chinese violinist Mira Wang, who was sponsored by Totenberg to study in Boston, mourned the death of "the most generous and sensitive and warm" person she has known. "My parents gave me life," she said, "and he taught me how to live it."
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