Music History in Pittsburgh

Steven Tietjen

Beginning in the later half of the 18th century, Pittsburgh was a cultural desert. In its nascent stages, the city was sparsely populated with soldiers, immigrant workers, and a smattering of “respectable” families. An influx of Irish settlers in the 1780s introduced a semblance of musical life with an emphasis on the Folk-equivalent of the violin, the fiddle, and the celebratory dance music that it accompanied. From this cultural import came the impetus for music-making in Pittsburgh, manifesting itself in a series of amateur musical societies that provided dance music for social occasions, and also satisfied a growing interest in orchestral music by presenting concerts of both solo and choral singing.

The first icon of Pittsburgh music was the “Father of American Music,” Stephen Collins Foster. Born in what is now Lawrenceville, Foster’s proclivity toward music was discouraged by his parents as a feminine activity. He briefly studied under Henry Kleber, one of the few music instructors in Pittsburgh at the time. Kleber also owned the only music store in the city. Foster is mostly famous for his famous songs such as “Oh, Susanna!”, “Camptown Races,” “Jeannie With the Light-Brown Hair,” and “Beautiful Dreamer.” Most of his compositions were written for minstrel shows - highly racist variety shows in which white actors performed in blackface. Despite this unsavory past, Foster’s songs had a distinct American flavor, beautifully and elegantly penned but colored with a simple, folk honesty. It is because of these songs, as ubiquitous today as they were 150 years ago, that Foster is considered the first real American composer. Today, Stephen Foster is immortalized at the Stephen Foster Memorial building at the University of Pittsburgh, also the home to the Center for American Music.

As the 19th century progressed and Pittsburgh’s economy expanded, with the increase in coal mining and steel production, the musical needs of the public grew. The Apollonian Society and the Allegheny Music Society presented chamber music, orchestral works, voice recitals, and choral concerts throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. However, lack of funds and available artists prevented further development. Travelling Opera and theatre companies presented comic and light operas from the 1830s on, but it wasn’t until the industrial boom of the 1870s that the city could sustain its own musical vibrancy.

Founded in 1874, the Art Society of Pittsburgh boasted a founding membership of sixty men and women from the upper echelon of society, including Andrew Carnegie. The implementation of an official orchestra indicated social prosperity and cultivation, prompting the society to create the Pittsburgh Orchestra (now Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra) in 1895. Despite the leadership of well-known composer and cellist Victor Herbert (composer of Babes in Toyland, Naughty Marietta and other operettas that laid the foundation for American musical theatre), who expanded the orchestra’s repertoire and hired famous guest artists, the orchestra reported an overwhelming $11,000 deficit in 1898. Continued financial hardships forced the suspension of the Pittsburgh Orchestra in 1910 until 1926, when renewed interest revived the organization. Otto Klemperer revolutionized the orchestra again in 1937 by holding national auditions that broadened the talent scope of the orchestra and expanded the membership to 101 musicians. By the 1960s, under the refinement of conductor William Steinberg, the Pittsburgh Symphony was considered one of the top ten orchestras in the United States, attracting a wide variety of audiences and musical artists alike. Currently, under the incomparable Manfred Honeck, the PSO continues to defend their reputation for excellence.

Concurrent with the rise of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is the ascent of the Pittsburgh Opera Company. Founded in 1939 as an amateur opera company, the Pittsburgh Opera grew out of a series of operas performed by the Tuesday Musical Club. By 1944, the Pittsburgh Opera achieved professional status and began its reputation as a premiere American Opera house. During its time the Pittsburgh Opera has attracted the very best singers, both foreign and American, including those native to Pittsburgh! Under the direction of Tito Capobianco from the 1970s to the 1990s, Pittsburgh solidified its place on the international Opera map.

While Pittsburgh has developed a rich history of Classical music, its importance in the world of Jazz is immense, though largely unreported. The area we now know as the Hill District was known as “Little Harlem” in the 1930s and 1940s, boasting hundreds of Jazz venues and dedicated to the promotion of Bebop. Ideally located, Pittsburgh was the gateway to the Meccas of American Jazz, especially New York. The number of Jazz musicians who were born or cultivated their talents in Pittsburgh is astounding. The Hill District and East Liberty were the birthplaces of Jazz legends such as Billy Eckstine, Stanley Turrentine, Billy Strayhorn, and Lena Horne. In addition, the club owner and concert promoter Leonard Litman nurtured the talents of young artists at the Copa Club at 818 Liberty Avenue starting in 1948. Here he engaged the young and unknown talents of Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Miles Davis.

Born in Homewood, Billy Strayhorn began his education as a classical pianist at the Pittsburgh Music Institute. Due to the racial taboos of his time, Strayhorn had to forego a career as a composer of Classical music and turned to Jazz. He met Duke Ellington after a performance in Pittsburgh and one of the most influential Jazz pairings was born. The two collaborated on compositions for Ellington’s band, with Strayhorn providing most of the arrangements. From this collaboration came the monumental Jazz standards “Satin

Doll,” and Strayhorn’s own “Take The ‘A’ Train”.

Pittsburgh today is abound in provocative, exciting, and new music within the context of an intimate, traditional setting. The variety of musical offerings, not just Classical and Jazz, but in nearly every genre imaginable has allowed for a rich cultural mosaic steeped in the continuously growing diversity of the city. The history and progression of music in Pittsburgh continues to this day with the symbiosis of new music with old.