A Special Tribute to Polish Violinist and Virtuoso Roman Totenberg (1 January  1911 – 8 May 2012)

Gary Fitelberg


On 8 May 2012, the world lost one of the greatest Polish violinist-virtuosos whose career spanned nine decades at the tender age of only 101. He was born 1 January 1911 (1/1/11). I was hoping he would live at least to 111 or until 120 (per Jewish joke and/or wish ‘May you live until 120’). A remarkable man and personality.

 I was blessed to know this compassionate generous kind soul. He has always been a close friend of the Fitelberg family.Making his concert debut under the baton of conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg at age 11 he left an indelible impression on everyone whose heart, mind and soul he touched. He also was responsible for playing the premiere of Jerzy Fitelberg’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.

Once when I flew to Boston to visit Totenberg for a documentary film with respect to Grzegorz Fitelberg, the prominent Polish composer-conductor (who himself was a violinist and pedagogue), I had the unique opportunity not only to film him but receive an impromptu personal concert which is unforgettable and unique. He was also teaching and hosting a group of his illustrious students for a luncheon. Not feeling well that particular day he had no thought to cancel our appointment or his teaching engagement. Roman Totenberg recalled Grzegorz Fitelberg candidly and humbly, ‘In Warsaw I often played with Gregor Fitelberg: Brahms’ concerto and many other works’.

His affiliation with Szymanowski, Rubenstein and Fitelberg also extended to the maestro Grzegorz Fitelberg’s son Jerzy Fitelberg. He shared a story of Szymanowski and Jerzy Fitelberg together with me:  

I remember Szymanowski very well. He was very tall, elegant, handsome, and reticent, only speaking quite a bit one-to-one. In 1933 or ‘34 in Paris I played some of his compositions and he liked it so much that he offered to play a concert with me. We played a recital there and later went to Italy, England, and Scandinavia for about two years of concerts. I was surprised by how well he knew music. When I played a Brahms sonata or something else, he knew exactly what it was and its construction. The son of the conductor Gregor Fitelberg was composing modern music and I helped him with a work, which I brought over to Szymanowski, who said, ‘Jerzy knows his Stravinsky, doesn’t he?’

I believe Totenberg was referring to the Canzone pour Violon et Piano by Haendel-Fitelberg. (Arrangement pour Violon par RomanTotenberg.) This was published in Paris, France by Editions Max Eschig.

On one occasion he shocked and surprised me by presenting me with a vary rare concert program from Paris, France on which he played a piece of music by Jerzy Fitelberg for violin.

Totenberg has many positive attributes and characteristics to all those who were blessed, honoured and privileged to have known him personally.Charismatic and charming. Genereous, Hospitable. Inspirational. Patient. These are only but a small sampling. He was a genius. His smile, sense of humour and sensitivity infected you with his warmth.

My adopted brother and good friend Polish violinist Hubert Pralitz recalls Totenberg fondly and with great reverence.‘I once met Roman Totenberg in Gdansk. I was a young violinist. It was truly remarkable that he let me play his Stradivarius. This was the first and only time I ever had the opportunity to play on such a fine instrument.’

One can not mention all the accomplishments and history of Roman Totenberg in the interest of limited space and time. But four are worthy of mentioning in this special tribute. Grzegorz Fitelberg was on the Jury of the International Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition. The recipient was Roman Totenberg (who was also a jurist later during 1977, 1981 and 1991). In 1983 he was named Artist Teacher of the Year by the American String Teachers Association. In April 2007 he was honoured with the New England String Ensemble’s Muses & Mentors Award for his great artistry and significant contributions to string education. In 1988 he was awarded the highest honour, the Order of Merit by the Polish Government for his life-long contributions to Polish society.

After he turned 100 he was in the hospital and a nurse came to check up on Roman Totenberg who asked her with his sense of humour ‘What’s wrong? I am not dead yet!’ Miraculously, at 101, still with a sense of humour and sharp of mind, teaching one of his thousands of students, this time at the hospital just until he passed away before his last breath was the following phenomenon that would charachterize his personality.According to his daughter Nina Totenberg her father was still teaching when he died and had ‘a remarkable death’ at the end of his earthly existence.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.’

Nina Totenberg adds, ‘He’s not going to go quickly — he has work to do.’

Many, too numerous to mention here, will miss the man and his personality. This man and maestro of magic and music will be missed by all who knew him.

His legacy of music lives infinitely in our hearts, minds and souls.

God gave us a gift.
Roman Totenberg
A man of music.
Virtuoso Violinist.

Roman Totenberg, I believe is now on special assignment, playing solo only for God and the angels.





To honour his memory and preserve his legacy of music, contributions can be made to the Roman and Melanie Totenberg String Scholarship Fund which presents awards to outstanding young musicians each year. If you would like to do so you can make a tax-deductible scholarship contribution through Boston University’s secure online website or by check to the BU College of Fine Arts, 855 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA, 02215, Attn: Office of Development and Alumni Relations. For further information you can also call (617) 353-5544.