The shopworn, obligatory rendition of "Happy Birthday to You" found new life when Rowland Sturges placed his fingers on the piano keys for each of his children's birthdays.
"He wanted to be a composer and never quite found his musical voice," said his son Jeffrey, of Santa Monica, Calif. "But he did these phenomenal variations. He would play 'Happy Birthday' in the style of any composer. He would go from Strauss to Bach to Beethoven to Stravinsky. He would do that like changing gears. He was a brilliant improviser -- that's where his genius showed through."
Concert pianist, conductor, and teacher, Mr. Sturges spent days and evenings consumed by the notations on music scores and the sounds he coaxed from keyboards and voices. A student of famed piano teacher Nadia Boulanger as a teenager, he settled in Cambridge and nurtured students for decades.
Mr. Sturges died of complications from Alzheimer's disease on Aug. 5, just 23 days after the death of his wife, Hedvig. He was 90 and had been living in Rivercrest, a skilled nursing care facility in Concord.
"As a child, what I mostly remember was his degree of seriousness, of purpose," said his daughter, Alice Sturges Steinman of Mill Valley, Calif. "He really was a perfectionist. He was extremely clinical. He got some critical notice for being so surgical and intense, and not so much the romantic who just flung his head back and let fly. He was very serious about getting it exactly as he had it in his mind and was a wonderful performer in just that way."
Rowland Gibson Hazard Sturges was born in Rhode Island, where "his family stretches back into the misty dawns of time in Providence and Newport," his daughter said.
A piano prodigy, he traveled to France in 1932 to study for three years with Boulanger, whose students had included the composers Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson. The artistic experience in Paris was invigorating; the living conditions daunting.
"On the one hand, he found her very inspiring and he really did like the focus on music, but he also talked about the social isolation," his daughter said. "I think he found that socially, it was kind of painful."
The years with Boulanger, his son said, left Mr. Sturges with "uncompromising artistic and aesthetic standards. He was merciless toward art."
Upon returning to the United States, Mr. Sturges attended Milton Academy, graduating in 1936. Choosing a different path than the one his older brothers had followed, he went to Harvard instead of Yale.
"In his day he was a rebel," his daughter said.
He graduated in 1940 and served in the Army during World War II as a chaplain's assistant. Postings took him as far away as Brazil, but his life changed one night while he was stationed in Kansas City, Mo.
At a piano concert, Mr. Sturges met an usher, Hedvig von Mayrhauser, who was born in Germany and had lived with her family in the Netherlands, Austria, and Italy before fleeing the rise of fascism and ending up in Kansas City, her mother's hometown.
"They evidently took one look at each other and that was it," their daughter said. "They were both fourth children, they were both somewhat fish out of water."
They were married six weeks later.
On their honeymoon, they traveled to New York City, where his uncle, Howard Sturges, was a confidant of the composer Cole Porter. The two arranged for the newlyweds to see a Broadway musical, just as they had taken Mr. Sturges to shows regularly while he was growing up.
Though Mr. Sturges was a classical musician first, the friendship with Porter may have influenced his playing -- particularly his gift for improvising, his son said.
"Cole Porter was part of my dad's world," he said. "I think my father straddled the classical and jazz worlds stylistically much in the way that Cole Porter did."
Moving to Cambridge, Mr. Sturges initially embarked on a concert career. He performed his debut recital in 1952 at Jordan Hall, was featured as a soloist with the Boston Civic Symphony, and played often at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Fond of chamber music, he performed as part of a trio and regularly gave concerts that were broadcast on television or radio stations.
And he added teaching to his schedule. Along with private lessons, Mr. Sturges taught for many years at Longy School of Music in Cambridge, retiring in 1981. He also was choral director at Buckingham School and Concord Academy.
For a few years in the early 1950s, Mr. Sturges was a musician in residence at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the annual summer gathering in Ripton, Vt., sponsored by Middlebury College, where he was delighted to meet author May Sarton.
"He just loved the crosscurrents that came together there," his daughter said.
"My dad had the widest range of interests of any human being I've ever met," his son said. "He was just fascinated about everything. Lead him into a bookstore and sit him down in any area and he'd be happy reading. He just loved learning about random subjects."
Years ago, Mr. Sturges took a break from practicing one day and went into the kitchen where his daughter, then about 12, was making lunch.
"And he piped up, 'Alice, you know what makes life worth living? Brahms,' " she recalled. "He loved Brahms above all else."
The other day, she was driving when a piece by Brahms, Intermezzo in A from Opus 118, came on the radio.
"And that was my father," she said. "He would play that incessantly. It was so familiar I felt like he was in the car with me."
In addition to his daughter and son, Mr. Sturges leaves another son, Howard, of Concord; four granddaughters; and a grandson.
A memorial concert will be held Nov. 30 at 7 p.m. in the Edward M. Pickman Concert Hall at Longy School of Music. Burial was in Mount Auburn Cemetery.