In memory of Springfield’s Howard Tuvelle, 1934-2021

An older Howard Tuvell plays his $100,000 August Forster grand piano at his Danbury, Connecticut, home. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
An older Howard Tuvell plays his $100,000 August Forster grand piano at his Danbury, Connecticut, home. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Child prodigy became a character.

In 1945, when 11-year-old Howard Tuvelle performed Mozart’s Coronation Piano Concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, some Springfielders must have wondered whatever would become of the city’s then-child prodigy.

The answer ultimately involved his being assigned to the White House, playing at First Lady Mamie Eisenhower’s birthday party in 1950 and wowing the D.C. cultural elite — the prelude to a career as a concert pianist, music professor and enthusiastic lover and promoter of the arts.

But after Tuvelle’s passing July 21 in Danbury, Connecticut, at age 87, his friend Carol Dorn evoked the fuller harmonics of his character in a Facebook post:

“The heavens have just gained the best angel — brilliant pianist, cigar-chomping, martini-drinking, bow-tie character — you could ever hope for, leaving quite a hole in our existence.”

Very much a product of his time in this place, Tuvelle came of age in World War II-era Springfield rich in culture and the arts.

Its key asset for his future was the Ralph Zirkle piano studio, accessible by a rickety elevator in the Mitchell Building, the four stories of which are long gone from the northeast corner of Limestone and High streets.

There Tuvelle studied with the studio’s namesake, one of its two dynamos. Tuvelle described the other — elocution instructor and theater performer Erna Gasser — as “a perfect double of Katherine Hepburn” whose ambition was to recreate in the city’s Shawnee and Bancroft hotels the avant-garde big city culture of the Big Apple’s Algonquin Club.

A child prodigy, Howard Tuvelle performed with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at age 11. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
A child prodigy, Howard Tuvelle performed with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at age 11. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

“When you got two Germans together like Erna Gasser and Ralph Zirkle,” Tuvelle once said, it’s understood that the result would be formidable.

But in remarks made 20 years ago when he concluded his concert piano career, Tuvelle made it clear Zirkle was no more formidable than his first teacher.

“My mother was a large woman” who was “absolutely tenacious about my practicing every day,” he said, “and never fully satisfied.”

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The same characteristic that led to mother-son squabbles readily overheard by the neighbors may also have allowed her son to impress Zirkle by being able to tell which notes the teacher was playing behind Tuvelle’s back.

The precocious 7-year-old’s explanation to his teacher — “my ears whispered the answer” — captures the puckishness of a lad who also played something of a command performance on the beat-up upright piano on the second floor of the old Springfield Police Station.

That performance came the night he and friend Larry Cutter snuck into a glove factory and slid down the polished metal slide of its production line for kicks.

“It was never anything bad,” Tuvelle told the News-Sun in 2002, “it was always mischief.”

The key mistake they made that night was sneaking in when Cutter’s uncle wasn’t the night watchman.

As Tuvelle’s mother and father skittered toward a divorce, his piano teacher assumed greater responsibility over his comings and goings.

“Zirkle just took over my life completely,” Tuvelle said. “I was with him day in and day out, weekends, evenings and summers.”

Jeanne Geis Stell, 95, whose March 1951 performance debut was covered by The New York Times, said her daily lessons with Zirkle also led to a close relationship that mixed high expectations with teacherly devotion. She considers them two elements that are both “very important in a child’s development.”

Largely missing in today’s culture, she said, Zirkle’s application of them ultimately was responsible for her admission to the Juilliard School and her subsequent career — as well as Tuvelle’s and others’.

That same epoxy held together the Zirkle studio family, allowing Tuvelle, though several years younger, to enjoy “some good memories of my mother’s cooking,” Stell said.

Tuvelle became a virtual older brother in the family through the piano students he taught at the studio while still attending Springfield High School.

His contemporary, Springfield pianist Carol Fahenstock Harbaugh, kept in touch with Tuvelle throughout his life and especially enjoyed the lovely calligraphy he applied to their annual Christmas cards.

Tuvelle’s Facebook profile says that, upon leaving Springfield, he went on to study “music, literature, philosophy, sociology (and) anarchy at Harvard, Miami University, Manhattan School of Music, Wittenberg University and Antioch College.”

But the timing of all those things was influenced by world politics.

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With the Korean War brewing, Tuvelle was in the Navy in 1950 and recently assigned to Washington when his performance of Rachmaninoff’s “Variations on a theme by Paganini” — which he learned in the Tuvelle studio — was overheard by Catherine Shouse, founder of the Wolf Trap Performing Arts Center.

The result, he said, was that instead of being assigned to a ship in the North Pacific, he drew a safer assignment as pianist at the White House: “From that day on, I did nothing but give public performances with (the Navy Band) as well as solo performances in various halls and homes of Washington’s social elite.”

Chopin’s “Polonaise in A flat” was a favorite of the powerful Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Sam Rayburn, who, aware of Tuvelle’s love of cigars, “would always shout and stick a cigar in my outside pocket” after a performance.

Harbaugh said fate stepped in one day when Tuvelle wasn’t able to catch a flight west with the Navy band the day its plane went down and all perished.

Once discharged from the Navy, Tuvelle attended the Manhattan School of Music, launched his career and settled into the music faculty at West Connecticut State College in Danbury, where he eventually chaired the department and served as its artist-in-residence.

Because Danbury was home of the American composer Charles Ives, Tuvelle sought to establish an Ives Institute, enlisting the help of the world-renowned Leonard Bernstein to conduct at the 1974 centennial celebration of the composer’s birth.

Howard Tuvelle the teacher and concert pianist sported a goatee. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Howard Tuvelle the teacher and concert pianist sported a goatee. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

The event drew 7,000 and indeed established an Ives Institute, though one Tuvelle’s son says it fell far short of his father’s hopes.

When interviewed by the News-Sun 20 years ago, Tuvelle had just told a Danbury audience his touring career had ended because he could no longer “stand being terrified” by wrong notes that were always lurking nearby on the keyboard.

So, he set about recording his full professional repertoire of pieces by Chopin, Mendelssohn, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Liszt, Debussy, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn on the $100,000 German-made August Forster grand piano in his home studio. With its singing tones and rich bass, “it’s the most extraordinary” instrument, he said. “There are only about six of them in the country.”

Fortunately for music lovers, some of Tuvelle’s performances of Chopin, Mendelssohn, Bach, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Debussy have been recorded on video that can be viewed by Googling “Howard Tuvelle YouTube.”

Those who explore the site can also view Tuvelle’s tours of cultural spots in Europe and may encounter his “Impromptu Concert for Buddha, Part 1, 2 and 3,” Buddha referring, in this case, to the dog who wanders through the room during those performances.

Tuvelle’s penchant for spoiling his animals reached full flower when his last one, a Jack Russell named Ginger, would bark beneath the piano until Tuvelle performed Robert Schumann’s “Traumarei” before she would conclude her day.

“He loved dogs and would put them on the same level as everyone else,” said Tuvelle’s son Sean.

But what most struck Sean Tuvelle after his father’s passing were the number of people “who said he was there for them when nobody else was — that he believed in them when nobody else did.”

Tuvelle intimate friend Dorothy Cosgrove France describes that dimension of Tuvelle with a grace found in the final measures of the 24 Chopin etudes the pianist once played from memory.

“When I was first inspired to fall in love with my husband,” Cosgrove writes, “Howard nurtured us along. One of my favorite things about young Rich France was the way his eyes would tear up whenever he would talk about this Howard — his kindness, his brilliance, his musical mysticism, his cigars, his quirkiness... (So) in addition to all of his accomplishments Howard was a gifted soul-supporter.” Though a performer, “he listened,” she writes, and in doing so, “pushed out love and hope.”

(Tuvelle’s survivors include sister Rose Farrar and Charles Boyer, Jr., both of Springfield, and brother Joe Tuvelle, of Sanford, Florida. Memorial contributions may be made to the Springfield Symphony Orchestra or the Springfield Museum of Art.)