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Roman Totenberg, renowned violinist, teacher, dies

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

Roman Totenberg in 2001, giving a lesson in his Newton home to 13-year-old Michael Sunamura of Weston.

Violinist Roman Totenberg, one of the last living bridges to a storied prewar world of European string playing and a revered teacher who was for decades a pillar of Boston’s musical community, died Tuesday in his Newton home.

The cause was renal failure, according to his daughter Amy. He was 101.

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Beginning Sunday morning and continuing until only hours before Mr. Totenberg’s death, former students from around the country, many of them now well-established performers, journeyed to Newton to pay their respects. As violinists, that meant playing music at his bedside for hours at a time.

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Mr. Totenberg performed worldwide before he took a teaching position at Boston University.

“When the first student came from Philadelphia, he could barely even lift his eyes, but suddenly he looked at him and was just so happy,’’ his daughter said. “One after the next, they came and played their hearts out for him.’’

Many of the students said they carried individual debts of gratitude toward a teacher whose subject went well beyond the niceties of violin technique.

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“My parents gave me life, and he taught me how to live it,’’ said violinist Mira Wang, who moved from China to study with Mr. Totenberg at Boston University, where he began teaching in 1961. “As a teacher, he was the most generous man I have ever met.’’

By any account, Mr. Totenberg lived a remarkable 20th century life, with musical memories dating back to the chaos surrounding the Russian Revolution. He spoke seven languages, and over the decades he played for kings and presidents, toured with musical royalty, and corresponded with luminaries such as Albert Schweitzer and Albert Einstein.

‘For him, music was the natural language of freedom.’

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President Bill Clinton called Mr. Totenberg a national treasure. An unflaggingly elegant man, in his final years he carried his decades of life experience with a quiet sense of humility and, it often seemed, with gratitude. “I feel like a child prodigy,’’ he told the Globe at age 99.

And that he once was, too. Roman Totenberg was born in 1911, into a Jewish family in Lodz, Poland. After World War I broke out, the Totenbergs moved to Moscow, where, as a boy, Mr. Totenberg lived through not only the Revolution, but also the famine that followed.

“My first memory was of a time of hunger,’’ he recounted in published recollections, “when my mother came home with the head of a horse to cook something for our food.’’

At 6, Mr. Totenberg began studying violin with a neighbor who was the concertmaster of the Bolshoi Opera. As soon as he learned enough to join his teacher, the two began performing in public to earn bread, butter, and sugar for their families.

Returning to Poland, Mr. Totenberg enrolled at the conservatory in Warsaw and made his debut with the Warsaw Philharmonic at 11. As a teenager in the 1920s, he studied in Berlin with the famed violin teacher Carl Flesch before the political situation worsened and he moved to Paris, where he continued his studies with the legendary Georges Enesco. Coming of age in an era of war and revolution left an indelible mark not only on Mr. Totenberg’s life but also on his larger vision for the possibilities of music.

“For him, music was the natural language of freedom. It was not decorative,’’ said Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, who studied violin with Mr. Totenberg for nine years. “When he played, and when he taught, you were consciously aware that he owned every phrase. It was deeply personalized. He was really the last of the Mohicans.’’

Mr. Totenberg performed as a soloist with most of the prominent European orchestras, and in 1935, made his American debut with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. In a story he loved to tell, he then played in short succession in Italy for the king and for President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House. Playing for the king had been a stilted affair for which he was forced to wear a cape and a top hat. By contrast he was taken by the charming informality of Eleanor Roosevelt serving dinner herself after the concert.

He settled in this country permanently in 1938, and his mother arrived from Paris via Spain in 1939. Mr. Totenberg performed internationally through the 1940s and 1950s before settling in Boston and taking a teaching position at Boston University, where he chaired the string department until 1978, and co-chaired again in the 1990s. He also served as director of the Longy School of Music from 1978 to 1985, and taught at other conservatories and music festivals around the country.

“He was an iconic figure for me and my generation, from the time we were students,’’ said Robert Dodson, director of BU’s School of Music. “His contributions to Boston University are beyond summary. It was one of the unexpected benefactions of my life that when I arrived at BU in 2009, I found he was still alive and teaching.’’

In 1941, Mr. Totenberg married Melanie Shroder, a native New Yorker and an ebullient Democratic Party activist who for decades helped manage his career. Amy also credited their marriage with lifting Mr. Totenberg out of a depression brought on by the war years. Mrs. Totenberg died in 1996.

In the mid-1950s, he made an emotional return to Poland for a performance. The Polish public not only embraced him, but took a strong personal interest in his Polish roots. “After the concert,’’ Mr. Totenberg told the Globe in 2010, in a tone of enduring disbelief, “a man came to me with a package. He had collected my letters and high school work and was bringing it to me as a token of admiration.’’ Mr. Totenberg made frequent returns to Poland and helped work toward rebuilding the country’s shattered postwar cultural life, under the Poland’s Communist regime, and afterward.

He maintained a keen interest in the music of his time, dating back to his early years touring with the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. He later gave first performances of works by Hindemith, William Schuman, Penderecki, and Milhaud. In the standard violin repertoire, the recordings from his prime, some of which have been recently reissued by Arbiter Records, his playing shows a rare intelligence and a natural singing tone, a living spontaneity of phrasing, and an intuitive sense for the music’s lyrical imperatives.

Even so, as a performer, Mr. Totenberg never attained the international profile of the era’s leading soloists, but he enjoyed a more integrated career of teaching, concerto appearances, and chamber music. He cofounded the Alma Trio and toured South America with Arthur Rubinstein.

Working with young students through the decades was one key to his longevity, his daughter said. “This is how he lived so long,’’ she said. “He had such a feeling for youth, and had so many people of all ages who filled his life that he didn’t grow old.’’

In addition to his daughter Amy, a federal judge in Atlanta, Mr. Totenberg leaves two other daughters, Nina, legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio, and Jill, CEO of the Totenberg Group, a strategic corporate communications firm in New York; and five grandchildren.

Funeral services will be private and a public memorial ceremony will be announced.

During the impromptu bedside tributes offered earlier this week, Mr. Totenberg was still delivering advice on intonation, and even picking up a violin to demonstrate a fingering. “He lived on the vibration of music,’’ Amy said, “and on the remarkable community that it brought.’’

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.
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