"A remarkable death:" Roman Totenberg's last bow

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!’”

| More

 Friends' Activity   Popular 
All Blogs
Follow the Phoenix
  • newsletter
  • twitter
  • facebook
  • youtube
  • rss
Latest Comments
Search Blogs
Phlog Archives