Bio Sketch: Howard Forrer Peirce (1865-1899), prominent musician in Dayton, Ohio

Howard Forrer Peirce was born May 4, 1865, in Dayton, Ohio, the youngest child of Jeremiah H. Peirce (1818-1889) and Elizabeth H. Forrer (1827-1874).[1] Howard was named after his uncle, Howard Forrer, who had died the previous July.

In the late 19th century, Howard Forrer Peirce was well-known as an excellent pianist in Dayton as well as other parts of the country.[2] He has been called “our most gifted native musician.”[3]

Howard Forrer Peirce

Howard Forrer Peirce (Dayton Metro Library, FPW, Box 27, Folder 22)

Howard’s tremendous musical talent began as a child. His first music teachers were his mother and sisters, particularly his sister Mellie. He learned to play by ear and then by reading music.

Howard Forrer Peirce as a child

Howard Forrer Peirce as a child (Dayton Metro Library, FPW, Box 27, Folder 22)

In 1875, when Howard was 10 years old, his sister Mellie returned from a year abroad, most of which was spent in Germany. She brought home the piano music for Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, which Howard studied enthusiastically.[4]

When Howard was 13, he was abruptly invited to play the piano accompaniments to a public choral performance of Handel’s oratorio, “The Messiah.” This invitation resulted from the sudden illness of the regular accompanist, and although he had only two days to prepare, Howard executed the performance perfectly, to the surprise and delight of many of Dayton’s older musicians.[5]

About that time, Howard began to study with Prof. Louis Huesmann, one of Dayton’s oldest and most respected music teachers. Huesmann had been a student of German musical scholarship, particularly Palestrina, Bach, and Beethoven, and he conveyed this knowledge to Howard.[6]

Howard Forrer Peirce

Howard Forrer Peirce (Dayton Metro Library, FPW, Box 27, Folder 22)

For four years, Howard studied harmony and composition under prominent Dayton pianist, composer, and music teacher W. L. Blumenschein. Howard would later participate in organizations associated with his teacher, such as the Dayton Philharmonic Society and the Cincinnati May Musical Festival, both of which Blumenschein directed.[7]

In the early 1880s, Howard was already beginning to play piano in public, although some sources state that he did not make “his first public playing” until 1885.[8] For instance, in December 1883, Howard played organ “with a rare skill for one so young” for a Dayton Philharmonic Society performance.[9]

Howard attended Cooper Academy for his general education. He was “highly educated in all directions, and was a careful, critical student of literature.”[10]

For a short time in 1884-1885, Howard worked as a book-keeper at Peirce & Coleman, his father’s lumber business.[11] However, Howard’s foray into business did not last long, as his true passion was music.

In 1885, at the age of 20, Howard gave a series of piano recitals from Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, and Chopin.[12] This concert series has been called “an epoch in the musical history of Dayton.”[13] Professor James A. Robert called the concerts “rare experiences, even to the most cultivated of his audience.”[14]

In April 1886, Howard traveled to Europe to continue his musical studies, arriving in Munich a few days before his twenty-first birthday. He studied about two and a half years at the Munich Conservatory of Music, where he received instruction from Josef Giehrl on the piano and from Joseph Rheinberger in theory.[15]

In addition to his musical studies, Howard took many vacations to sightsee and visit art and literary centers while in Europe.[16]

Howard Forrer Peirce in Munich, ca. 1887

Howard Forrer Peirce in Munich, ca. 1887 (Dayton Metro Library, FPW, Box 27, Folder 22)

In September 1888, Howard left Munich and went to Florence, where he studied with noted Italian pianist and composer Giuseppe Buonamici, through March 1889.[17] Howard had made plans to leave Florence for Rome at the first of April, but before he departed, he went to bid his teacher Buonamici farewell. The following week, from Rome, Howard wrote a lengthy letter to his father regarding a decision presented from his conversation with Buonamici:

Dear Papa, Last Sunday before I started for Rome, I went to tell Signor Buonamici good-bye. He opened up a subject that he has hinted at a good many times before. He is very anxious that I should stay another year in Florence. Of course I have told him all along and on Sunday, that it was impossible, but he was anxious that I should at least write to you about it, and I thought I could do no less… I have given as reasons for my going home, when he has spoken of it before, that I did not feel, in the first place, that I ought to ask you for the money for another year, even if you felt as if you could afford it, and then, I have already passed the age when I ought to be earning my own living, and am anxious to get home and see you all—a little homesick—and that I knew you wanted to see me—all very important reasons to me… He feels, as I do, that I have not done much this year on account of my hand. The only really good work that I have done with him was the first month. Since my hand has gotten well, I have worked to be sure, but have been half afraid to. Have really accomplished very little. I think too he has some ambition for me, as I have had for myself, to play in concert—at least be able to. And, tho’ he has not said it, I know he would not think me prepared for it next Fall, but another year would make me able…

Howard next wrote about the possibility of a patronage arrangement, suggested by Buonamici as a solution to the problem of funding Howard’s studies and living expenses for another year. However, even with the money problem potentially solved, Howard was still torn. After three years abroad, he missed his family.

…As for myself, as I said, it seemed almost an impossibility at first, as I have thought so long about coming home this Summer, and am so anxious to see you again. If you should come over this Summer, which I can’t help thinking would be a very good thing for you, that objection would be partly removed.

Coming home, I should settle down to teaching, and if I am going to teach, want to be a good teacher and I know that would take all my time, and goodbye to playing, tho’ I might have success and make money and be with my family, and maybe be a stronger man. Staying here, I should make myself able to play—whether I should have success at it is a question—and gratify my ambition, and make myself able to teach better when I do begin. From the association with the people I am thrown with in Florence, I would become broader, musically and intellectually—whether it would be of any practical value I don’t know. I think that is how it stands. There are good and bad consequences on either side. I think I should be a little disappointed whichever I did. I want to come home and I want to stay. It might be better to come home and it might be a turning against Providence not to stay. Can you decide it? This is a hard letter to write for I know it would be perhaps as much of a disappointment for you at home, as for me, if I should not come home this Summer. I should not think of its being a possibility if Buonamici had not suggested the money arrangement. As soon as you have a little time, I wish you would please write me what you think. With much love, your son, Howard.[18]

As it turned out, Howard’s decision was made for him, when he was called home a few weeks later by his father’s failing health. Unfortunately, by the time the seriousness of J. H. Peirce’s condition was realized and communicated to his youngest son Howard, the distance and a steamship strike prevented Howard from reaching Dayton in time. J. H. Peirce died on May 8, 1889; Howard arrived home about two weeks later.[19]

After his return to Dayton in 1889, Howard taught private music lessons for several months.[20] On June 17, 1890, twenty-five of his piano students (including niece Beth Parrott, nephew John E. Parrott, and cousin Mary Bruen) performed in a recital held at Five Oaks.[21]

Howard Forrer Peirce at the piano, probably in the Music Room at Five Oaks

Howard Forrer Peirce at the piano, probably in the Music Room at Five Oaks (Dayton Metro Library, FPW, Box 27, Folder 22)

In the late summer of 1890, Howard moved to Boston, where he gave concerts and took speaking lessons from Mrs. Eliza J. (Ellery) Thorpe. He first resided at 86 Boylston Street, but when his sister Elizabeth and cousin Mary Bruen (who often accompanied Howard as vocalist) decided to join him in November, the trio found more suitable lodgings at 198 Tremont Street.[22]

The girls returned to Dayton by the end of April 1891, and Howard had intended to go with them; however, his teacher Mrs. Thorpe objected. Apparently, Howard had a stutter that they were working to eliminate, using a special method developed by Mrs. Thorpe.[23] Howard wrote to his sister Sarah on May 10, to let her know he was staying a bit longer:

When this reaches you, you will have had E’s note saying I am not coming—perhaps E. may herself be home. I had decided to come with her till Friday when I went out to Newton Center. Mrs. Thorpe was very much against it, and I felt I was not strong enough to keep what I have gained after I left her. So now I am going out there to board and devote all my time to it. Will have no piano and no music, and all my acquaintances will think I have left Boston… Three or four weeks of that must prove whether I or the method is any good. Mrs. T. says she knows her method is right, tho’ it may be several years before I am perfectly free from stammering. I am more sorry than I can tell not to come home now, but while I am about it I might as well do all I can. I hope it will not be longer than the first of June…[24]

Howard returned to Dayton in the middle of June 1891.[25] He resumed teaching private music lessons; became organist at Grace Methodist Episcopal Church; accompanied the Dayton Philharmonic Society and later the Cincinnati May Musical Festival chorus (both of which were directed by his former teacher W. L. Blumenschein); and played many concerts in Dayton and throughout the United States and Canada.[26]

In 1897-1898, Howard played several concerts in New York City with Harry Plunket Greene, an Irish baritone the same age as Howard.[27] On December 1, 1897, Howard even played a recital in the Chamber Music Hall at Carnegie Hall.[28]

Howard Forrer Peirce at age 34 [33] (ca. 1899)

Howard Forrer Peirce at age 34 [33] (ca. 1899) (Dayton Metro Library, FPW, Box 27, Folder 22)

In the fall of 1898, Howard was planning to return to New York City to play additional concerts with Greene. However, illness forced him to cancel his engagements in the city.[29]

Howard was suffering from tuberculosis. One of his obituaries later referred to “the dread disease whose attack had been so swift and so utterly without warning.”[30] However, his death certificate stated that he had been afflicted with the disease for 6 years.[31]

Instead of returning to New York in early 1899, as he had planned, Howard’s family instead took him to a tuberculosis sanatorium in Phoenix, Arizona, in early March, with the hope of slowing the progress of his tuberculosis.[32] Such sanatoriums were common in the treatment of tuberculosis prior to the introduction of antibiotics to combat the disease in the 1940s, and the warm, dry climate of the Southwest made it a popular location for tuberculosis sanatoriums.[33]

In addition to keeping him from his musical career, Howard’s illness ultimately prevented him from marrying his fiancée Marie Agnes Schwill, a 26-year-old singer from Cincinnati. The exact details of when or how Howard met Marie are unclear; however, they probably met through their mutual interest in music. (Howard had played in Cincinnati and been involved with the Cincinnati May Musical Festival.) Howard and Marie probably met no later than July 1898, when Marie and a friend Amy Kofler opened a school of music in Dayton, in a studio formerly occupied by Howard Peirce in the McIntire building. (This may have been in anticipation of Howard and Marie’s impending marriage.)[34]

Marie went with Howard to Phoenix, along with several members of his family. Howard’s doctor from Dayton, Dr. William H. Webster, also joined him in Phoenix.[35] But ultimately, neither his family, nor his doctors, nor the climate could save him.

Marie Schwill and Howard F. Peirce in Phoenix, 1899, shortly before his death

Marie Schwill and Howard F. Peirce in Phoenix, 1899, shortly before his death (Dayton Metro Library, FPW, Box 27, Folder 22)

Howard F. Peirce died of tuberculosis on April 19, 1899, in Phoenix, Arizona; he was 33 years old.[36] He was buried on April 25, 1899, in Woodland Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio.[37]

The death of Howard Forrer Peirce brought great shock and sadness to many in Dayton, and several memorials were printed in the local newspapers. One such memorial filled nearly an entire page. They told of his life, especially his musical career, but also of his character. One such memorial described his talents not only as a musician but also as an outdoorsman:

…To some friends, the dearest vision of Howard Peirce will show him at the piano, with his soul shining through his dreamy eyes and speaking in his tender touch, and the mental ear will help the mental eyesight to keep that picture clear and bright, while life lasts.

For other friends his memory will arise anew each spring with the green leaves, the bird songs and the smell of the new earth. He was a Nature enthusiast. He loved a tent by the river, a canoe, a book. Lying under the stars was a delight to him. He was a camper by instinct and by practice. He knew how to live out of doors gracefully… He loved it all, and lived in it; seriously though responsively; with quiet appreciations, with earnestness and humorous sympathy…[38]

Today, a large, rose-shaped stained glass window dedicated to Howard Forrer Peirce provides a lasting memorial. The window was originally installed at the First Unitarian Church of Dayton, founded in 1910 at the corner of Salem Avenue and Five Oaks Avenue. Howard’s Aunt Mary Peirce and sisters Sarah and Elizabeth Peirce were among the founding members of the church, and they donated the window to honor Howard’s memory. It is a fitting monument for a former church organist. Although the First Unitarian Church no longer occupies that building, the window was removed, saved and eventually restored. It can be seen today at the Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Centerville, Ohio.[39]

Howard Forrer Peirce stained glass window at the Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Photo courtesy of Maury Wyckoff. Used with permission.

Howard Forrer Peirce stained glass window at the Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. (Photo courtesy of Maury Wyckoff. Used with permission.)

Special thanks to Maury Wyckoff for permitting me to use these great photos of the Howard Forrer Peirce stained glass window!

Detail of the Howard Forrer Peirce stained glass window. Photo courtesy of Maury Wyckoff. Used with permission.

Detail of the Howard Forrer Peirce stained glass window. (Photo courtesy of Maury Wyckoff. Used with permission.)

*****

This biographical sketch was originally written by Lisa P. Rickey in April 2012 for the Forrer-Peirce-Wood Collection (MS-018) finding aid at the Dayton Metro Library, 215 E. Third St., Dayton, Ohio, 45402; phone (937) 496-8654. Additional information about the sketch’s subject can be found in that collection and in the citations below. Please contact the library or this blog’s author for more information about how to access the original finding aid or the manuscript collection.


[1] Frank Bruen, Christian Forrer, the Clockmaker, and his Descendants (Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1939), 126; “Mr. Howard Forrer Peirce” (obituary), Dayton Journal, 21 Apr. 1899, in Howard Forrer Peirce: Obituaries, Forrer-Peirce-Wood Collection (hereafter cited as FPW), 27:21, Dayton Metro Library (Dayton, Ohio), and also quoted in Bruen, Christian Forrer, 126; Frank Conover, Centennial Portrait and Biographical Record of the City of Dayton and Montgomery County, Ohio (Chicago: A. W. Bowen, 1897), 309.

[2] Charlotte Reeve Conover, Some Dayton Saints and Prophets (Dayton, OH: United Brethren Publishing House, 1907), 215; “Mr. Howard Forrer Peirce” (obituary), Dayton Journal, 21 Apr. 1899, FPW, 27:21; Harvey W. Crew, History of Dayton, Ohio (Dayton, OH: United Brethren Publishing House, 1889), 559-560.

[3] Charlotte Reeve Conover, Memoirs of the Miami Valley (Chicago: Robert O. Law Co., 1919), vol. 2, 112.

[4] Conover, Some Dayton Saints and Prophets, 215; “Mr. Howard Forrer Peirce” (obituary), Dayton Journal, 21 Apr. 1899, FPW, 27:21.

[5] Conover, Some Dayton Saints and Prophets, 216; “Mr. Howard Forrer Peirce” (obituary), Dayton Journal, 21 Apr. 1899, FPW, 27:21.

[6] Conover, Some Dayton Saints and Prophets, 216; “Mr. Howard Forrer Peirce” (obituary), Dayton Journal, 21 Apr. 1899, FPW, 27:21; Conover, Centennial Portrait, 309; Crew, History of Dayton, 559;

[7] Conover, Some Dayton Saints and Prophets, 216; “Mr. Howard Forrer Peirce” (obituary), Dayton Journal, 21 Apr. 1899, FPW, 27:21; Conover, Centennial Portrait, 300-301, 309; Crew, History of Dayton, 559-560; Conover, Memoirs of the Miami Valley, vol. 2, 106-107.

[8] Conover, Some Dayton Saints and Prophets, 216.

[9] “The Messiah Last Night,” Dayton Daily News, 28 Dec. 1883, in Howard Forrer Peirce: Newspaper Clippings, FPW, 27:20.

[10] Conover, Some Dayton Saints and Prophets, 215.

[11] Dayton City Directory, 1884-1885.

[12] Conover, Some Dayton Saints and Prophets, 216; “Mr. Howard Forrer Peirce” (obituary), Dayton Journal, 21 Apr. 1899, FPW, 27:21.

[13] Conover, Some Dayton Saints and Prophets, 216.

[14] Conover, Some Dayton Saints and Prophets, 216.

[15] Various letters from Howard F. Peirce to his family, FPW, 24:1, 24:2, 24:5, 24:6, 25:1, 25:4, 25:5; Conover, Some Dayton Saints and Prophets, 216-217; “Mr. Howard Forrer Peirce” (obituary), Dayton Journal, 21 Apr. 1899, FPW, 27:21; Conover, Centennial Portrait, 309.

[16] Various letters from Howard F. Peirce to his family, FPW, 24:1, 24:2, 24:5, 24:6, 25:1, 25:2, 25:4, 25:5; Conover, Some Dayton Saints and Prophets, 217; “Mr. Howard Forrer Peirce” (obituary), Dayton Journal, 21 Apr. 1899, FPW, 27:21.

[17] Various letters from Howard F. Peirce to his family, FPW, 24:2, 24:6, 25:2, 25:5; Conover, Some Dayton Saints and Prophets, 216-217; “Mr. Howard Forrer Peirce” (obituary), Dayton Journal, 21 Apr. 1899, FPW, 27:21; Conover, Centennial Portrait, 309.

[18] Howard F. Peirce to his father Jeremiah H. Peirce, 7 Apr. 1889, FPW, 24:2.

[19] Mellie Peirce to her brother Howard F. Peirce, 16 May 1889, FPW, 18:21.

[20] Conover, Some Dayton Saints and Prophets, 217;Dayton City Directory, 1890-1891.

[21] “The First Recital Given by the Pupils of Mr. Howard F. Peirce, Assisted by Miss Stout,” Dayton Daily Times, 18 June 1890, in Howard Forrer Peirce: Newspaper Clippings, FPW, 27:20.

[22] Various letters from Howard F. Peirce to his family, FPW, 24:7, 25:3, 25:6; Conover, Centennial Portrait, 309.

[23] Mrs. Thorpe eventually published a book on her method: Eliza Jane Ellery Thorpe, Speech Hesitation (New York: Edgar S. Werner Publishing & Supply Co., 1898).

[24] Howard F. Peirce to his sister Sarah H. Peirce, 10 May 1891, FPW, 24:7.

[25] Howard F. Peirce to his sister Sarah H. Peirce, 3 June 1891, FPW, 24:7.

[26] Conover, Some Dayton Saints and Prophets, 217; “Mr. Howard Forrer Peirce” (obituary), Dayton Journal, 21 Apr. 1899, FPW, 27:21; Conover, Centennial Portrait, 309.

[27] Conover, Some Dayton Saints and Prophets, 217; Various letters from Howard F. Peirce to his sisters, FPW, 24:8, 25:7; Miscellaneous Correspondence from Harry Plunket Greene to Howard F. Peirce, FPW, 26:14.

[28] “Howard Forrer Peirce, Piano Recital,” New York Times, 29 Nov. 1897; “Mr. Peirce’s Piano Recital: First Appearance in New York of a Young American Pianist” (review), New York Times, 2 Dec. 1897.

[29] Otto W. Beck to Howard F. Peirce, 7 Sept. 1898 and 15 Jan. 1899, FPW, 26:3; Stewart Henston to Howard F. Peirce, [no date] 1899, FPW, 27:10.

[30] “Howard Forrer Peirce” (obituary), [20 Apr. 1899], unidentified newspaper, in Howard Forrer Peirce: Obituaries, FPW, 27:21.

[31] Death certificate of Howard F. Peirce, 19 Apr. 1899, “Arizona Deaths, 1870-1951” (database), FamilySearch, accessed 15 Feb. 2012, https://www.familysearch.org/.

[32] “Howard Forrer Peirce” (obituary), [20 Apr. 1899], unidentified newspaper, in Howard Forrer Peirce: Obituaries, FPW, 27:21; “This was at Phoenix where Uncle Howard died” [family photo], in Howard Forrer Peirce: Photographs, FPW, 27:22; “Pianist Peirce Dying,” Cincinnati Enquirer, 18 Apr. 1899, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Cincinnati Enquirer, 1841-1922.

[33] Kyle L. McCoy, The Arizona Story (Layton, UT : Gibbs Smith, 2008), 240.

[34] “Pianist Peirce Dying,” Cincinnati Enquirer, 18 Apr. 1899; “Music: Miss Kofly and Schwill in Dayton,” Cincinnati Enquirer, 24 July 1898, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Cincinnati Enquirer, 1841-1922; “Schwill, Marie A.,” Dayton City Directory, 1899-1900; and “This was at Phoenix where Uncle Howard died” [family photo], FPW, 27:22.

The Apr. 18, 1899, Cincinnati Enquirer article identified Marie Schwill as Howard’s fiancée; she is identified in the cited photograph as “Miss Marie Schwill (later Mrs. Karl Bitter)” and can be seen sitting next to Howard in the photograph cited.

After Howard’s death, Marie Schwill (1872-1944) was married in 1901 to Karl Bitter, a well-known sculptor. They lived in New York City and had three children: Francis, Marietta, and John. Marie apparently remained in touch with the Peirce family, as photos of Francis Bitter can be found in FPW, 40:4.

[35] “Howard Forrer Peirce” (obituary), [20 Apr. 1899], unidentified newspaper, in Howard Forrer Peirce: Obituaries, FPW, 27:21; “This was at Phoenix…” [family photo], FPW, 27:22; Howard F. Peirce: receipt for medical services from Frank & Wm. H. Webster, 18 Oct. 1898, in Howard Forrer Peirce: Bills & Receipts, FPW, 27:17. Both Marie Schwill and Dr. Webster are pictured in the cited photograph.

[36] Bruen, Christian Forrer, 126; “Mr. Howard Forrer Peirce” (obituary), Dayton Journal, 21 Apr. 1899, FPW, 27:21.

[37] Woodland Cemetery & Arboretum Interment Database, accessed 26 Oct. 2011, http://www.woodlandcemetery.org. Howard is buried in Section 77, Lot 24.

[38] C. R. C. [Charlotte Reeve Conover], “Howard Forrer Peirce: In Memoriam,” [Apr. 1899], unidentified newspaper, in Howard Forrer Peirce: Obituaries, FPW, 27:21.

[39] Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship church web site, accessed 18 Jan. 2012, http://www.mvuuf.org.

9 responses to “Bio Sketch: Howard Forrer Peirce (1865-1899), prominent musician in Dayton, Ohio

  1. Dear Ms. Rickey,

    Many thanks for your excellent article about Howard Forrer Peirce. I am a member of Miami Valley UU Fellowship & have long wondered about this man whose name is memorialized by our church window. Thank you for sharing his story with us all.

    John Bierman
    Dayton, OH
    john_bierman@att.net

  2. Maureen O'Meara

    Dear Ms. Rickey,
    Many thanks for such a well-researched biography of Howard Forrer Peirce.
    As a member of Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship just last Sunday while looking at our beautfiul window, I once again asked myself “Who was Howard Forrer Peirce?” Now, thanks to you, I have a much better notion of the man whom the window memorializes.

    Maureen O’Meara
    Dayton

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