Roman Totenberg (1 January 1911 – 8 May 2012) was a Polish-American violinist and educator.
Totenberg was a child prodigy, studied with Michalowicz in Warsaw, and made his debut at the age of eleven as soloist with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. He was also awarded the gold medal at the Chopin Conservatory/Warsaw and continued his studies with Carl Flesch in Berlin, where he won the International Mendelssohn Prize in 1931,and later with George Enescu and Pierre Monteux in Paris. In 1935, he made his British debut in London and his American debut in Washington, D. C. At age 25, he played for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. At age 27, he formally immigrated to the U.S. under the distinguished artist visa program.
Totenberg toured South America with Artur Rubinstein, and gave joint recitals with Karol Szymanowski. He gave many concerts comprising the complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas and all Bach Brandenburg concertos. His diversified repertoire included more than thirty concerti. Among the many contemporary works he introduced are the Darius Milhaud Violin Concerto No. 2, the William Schuman Concerto, and the Krzysztof Penderecki Capriccio. He also premiered Paul Hindemith’s Sonata in E (1935), the Samuel Barber Concerto (new version) and the Bohuslav Martinů Sonata, as well as giving the American premiere of Arthur Honegger’s Sonate for violin solo. Under the patronage of the eminent violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and along with pianist Adolph Baller and cellist Gabor Rejto, Totenberg formed the Alma Trio in 1942–43 at Menuhin’s Alma estate in California.
Totenberg appeared with numerous American orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Cleveland, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Washington Symphonies. In Europe he performed with all major orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. He played under eminent conductors including Stokowski, Kubelik, Szell, Rodzinski, Fitelberg, Jochum, Rowicki, Krenz, Monteux, Wit, Steinberg and Golschmann. In recital he appeared at the White House, Carnegie Hall, the Library of Congress, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in every major American and European city. He was featured with the most important music festivals of the world, notably at Salzburg’s Mozarteum, the Aspen Music Festival, Tanglewood Music Center, Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival and the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, where he was appointed chairman of the string department in 1947.
One of Totenberg’s favorite instruments was the Ames Stradivarius, which he purchased for about $15,000 in 1943 (equivalent to $208,000 in 2016). It was stolen from his office after a concert in May 1980. Totenberg suspected aspiring violinist Philip S. Johnson of the theft, but police at the time did not believe there was enough evidence to issue a search warrant. The instrument was recovered thirty-five years later in 2015, four years after Johnson’s death, when his former wife discovered it among his effects and sought to have it appraised.
The recovered instrument was returned to Totenberg’s daughters on August 6, 2015, after which it was to be restored to playing condition.The family stated that they planned to sell the instrument after it had been restored. According to Nina Totenberg, “we’re going to make sure that it’s in the hands of another great artist who will play it in concert halls all over the world.”