UPDATE May 8, 12:15 pm: Nina Totenberg reports that Roman Totenberg passed away early this morning. He was still teaching yesterday. Our thoughts are with Nina and her sisters.
Roman Totenberg is teaching a lesson.
In a hospital bed in his Newton home, he listens to his student Letitia Hom playing the Brahms violin concerto. “Slow down, here,” he murmurs. “Slow down.”
His kidneys are shutting down. At 101 years old, the
legendary violinist — a man who hung out
with Stravinsky and Copland, Menuhin and Rubenstein — is finally dying.
But he’s still teaching.
He murmurs something Hom can’t hear. “What?” she says. He repeats himself, but she still can’t hear. She bends over his bed, putting her ear to his mouth.
Totenberg says, perfectly clearly: “The D was flat.”
“It’s a remarkarkable death,” said Totenberg’s daughter, the NPR journalist Nina Totenberg. “He’s not going to go quickly — he has work to do.”
Totenberg was a legend in his own time. Born in Lodz, Poland in 1911, he grew up in Moscow during the turmoil of the Russian Revolution before returning to Warsaw, where he gave his first concert as a child prodigy of eleven. Later, he worked closely with the greatest composers of the 20th century, from Barber
to Szymanowski, and premiered works that became part of the classical canon. He
gave concerts for the King of Italy (when there was a king of Italy) and for
Franklin Roosevelt when he was president.
But as he aged, he never stopped working.
As milestone birthdays went by — 90, 95, 100 — he attended
galas and tributes, then quietly continued to play and teach a new generation
of students. “I never stopped, that’s all. I probably will drop dead one of
these days. Somebody will play so many wrong notes that I won’t be able to
stand it anymore,” he told a reporter a few days before his hundredth birthday.
“There are people in the BSO in their sixties who I remember as
kids, studying with him,” Nina said. But there are also young members of the
BSO who visited this week, she said, saying “He changed my life.”
She said the family has had calls from Poland and Paris.
Her sisters have had to talk former students out of taking transatlantic flights
to see their teacher one more time.
All week, she said, a steady stream of Totenberg’s
colleagues and students has passed through his house. On Monday, violinist
Daniel Han drove from Philadelphia.
“My father was quite irritated with him because he didn’t remember enough of
the third movement of the Dvorak violin concerto, and that’s what he wanted to,
quote, ‘work with him on,’ ” Nina said.
The day before, violinist Mira
Wang had come up from New York and played for him all day. “He
wouldn’t let her stop,” Nina said. “He just said, ‘More! More!’”